PREYING CUCKOOS

Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is about the ill effects of fame, sex, politics, the fear of age. Geraldine Page’s over-the-hill Alexandra Del Lago is a hipper, looser Norma Desmond—a boozing, bennie-popping, hashish-smoking movie star-turned-shrew who buys the services of Paul Newman’s Chance to soothe her belief that she failed in her movie comeback. They end up in Chance’s hometown, where he’s none too welcomed: seems he left his girlfriend (Shirley Knight) in the family way and she had to secretly abort. Her father is vicious politico Boss Finley, who’s sworn out a warrant for loverboy’s castration. Writer-director Richard Brooks, trapped by the same censorship problems he had with the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, couldn’t execute Finley’s judgment against Newman that is in the play (and against Mark Harmon in the Elizabeth Taylor TV version), but he made up for this by writing a sequence for Ed Begley’s Finley and Madeleine Sherwood as his mistress Miss Lucy that’s a full tilter: there’s such sadist glee in Begley—who won an Oscar for what is a not very disguised Huey Long—that when he snaps shut a Faberge-like Easter egg on Miss Lucy’s finger you can envision what Jerry Falwell might have been like behind closed doors. (Sherwood is ne plus ultra Williams casting: she also played to the rafters Sister Woman in the play and movie Cat.) While there’s absolutely no way to believe Page and Newman, it’s also true that there’s no way not to enjoy how disbelieving they are. Page, in Sydney Guilaroff coifs belying the blowziness of Williams’ original vision, is as effectively affected as you could hope for, turning a phrase like “Are you one of those male nurses?” or pronounce “Chance” with just the right phonied-up patrician emphasis; has a shrewishly haughty laugh; and expertly falls not once but twice in a hotel bar, justifiably earning her second consecutive Oscar nom, the first for Summer and Smoke. Amusing when trying to tape record Page’s confession to drug use in order to blackmail her into keeping her promise to make him a star, and of course looking super-fit, Newman’s comportment defies Chance’s dreams; the huge expansion of the character for the film to accommodate his own rising star increases our awareness that he’s a tad too old to be convincing. Williams, in a Playboy interview, said that he thought the movie was superior to the play; structurally it is, but thematically and artistically they’re both crocks. (As with Cat, no attribution for the score but you’ll hear “Ebb Tide” and a piano version of Bronislau Kaper’s “Invitation” on the soundtrack.) The remake for TV, adapted by Gavin Lambert with more fidelity to Williams’ atmosphere and afterthoughts (he was considering a major revision) and directed by Nicolas Roeg, had snipers out in force ridiculing Taylor’s Alexandra, omitting that when Williams was deep in successive rewrites of the play, based on Tallulah Bankhead’s tawdry confessions, he provided Page with ever-larger and more golden opportunities to exalt in what the playwright himself called her “witchery.” Roeg’s wrong to let Taylor stay plumpy—his decision based on the original text, not hers—and her no-neck double-layered outfits and Martha dos-gone-“Bold and the Beautiful”-Sally Spectra don’t help much; but he extracted a better than her usual lazy performance: no appalling accent on words (an annoying habit she picked up from Burton) though she certainly knows how to slur the name Kosmonopolis; no excessive lip-smacking; is quite believable when issuing a sex-on-demand order, and in one scene, sitting in a convertible listening to Mark Harmon, her inner beauty as person comes to the surface. The TV movie’s asset is Harmon’s work as Chance. He ain’t no Newman as star power, but he’s much more than an understudy: Harmon stays with the material, making his Chance the only believable character to ever come out of the warped scenario.

Geraldine Page as Miss Alma in Williams’ Summer and Smoke is more controlled than usual, she’s rather pretty in the getups, and you like how she patiently endures her klepto mommie Una Merkl. But the way in which Page performs here isn’t for the movies—the balance between theatrical stylization and the camera’s sometimes-severe tendency to expose artificiality is her major handicap, and director Peter Glenville hasn’t helped her because instead of widening boundaries he’s encased them, albeit in a nicely appointed production. That’s not all that’s wrong: what’s missing—and has always been missing—is Alma’s latent sexual drive coming to the surface. This is one of Williams’ most polite, even conservative treatises about sex and that he was in a perpetual re-write mode confirmed he was never satisfied that he got to where he wanted to go. The prime example of his quandary is in Alma’s climatic utterances to the man (Laurence Harvey) she thinks she loves, professing a new-found desire for him with such hushed delicacy and with such beautiful modulation by Page (in what is likely and ironically the single best scene of her movie career) that the audience is dumbfounded by what remains absent—measurable lust. (She shows a more convincing case of the hots for her brother played by Dean Martin in Toys in the Attic.) Harvey’s Johnny reinforces the author’s dilemma when he says to Alma that he was mistaken in calling her “puritanical ice that glittered like flame” when “now I believe it was flame, mistaken for ice.” No, he didn’t get her wrong the first time. And Alma doesn’t melt when she meets Mr. Kramer, she remains ice.

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