Monsters Don’t Die Early: Our Critics Discuss Sweet Bird of Youth (for Parterre Box)

DAVID FOX: Cameron, I realize that, cinematically speaking, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Tennessee Williams in black and white. Most of the early films are shot that way, and in many—Streetcar and The Fugitive Kind especially—the shadowy Noir quality feels just right. A notable exception is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: like Sweet Bird of Youth, which we’re considering today, it was directed and co-written by Richard Brooks, and filmed in Metrocolor, which lends an overripe, almost garish underscoring to that play’s theme of nouveau riche-ness. Though there is some necessary-for-the-time but unfortunate cutting and censoring parts of the play, I consider that Cat film generally one of the most successful Williams adaptations. I wish I could say the same about Brooks’ Sweet Bird of Youth. But despite some exceptional elements—including, of course, Geraldine Page and Paul Newman recreating their Broadway roles here—the whole thing is a bit of a mess. Also, a missed opportunity: the rapier edge at the heart of both the play’s emotional core and its high-camp subtext feels (almost literally, given the denouement) neutered. It isn’t entirely Brooks’ fault, though he makes some crucial misjudgments (more on that later). It’s also that Williams’ original play, brilliant in flashes, never really coheres.

CAMERON KELSALL: I sometimes think of Sweet Bird of Youth as the fork in the road of Williams’ career—first appearing on Broadway in 1959, it closes out an undeniably successful decade for him, on stage and screen, and bisects his body of work, with his mature hits on one side and his experimental, often lambasted later plays on the other. It also finds him working in a more outwardly soapy milieu, as if he took Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and merged it with Peyton Place. I know what you mean, David, when you talk about the overripe elements of Brooks’ Cat movie, and I think those elements are here too—although to me, they’re much more baked into the material itself. Although there are some deliciously outsize characters in this play, I’ve always had trouble warming to it, generally preferring the seedier elements of Williams’ less polished work. Revisiting this movie for the first time in a few years, I found myself having the same reaction. On the cusp of moving into an uncategorizable era, Williams seems to want both a well-made story and a soap opera, and in the end, the audience gets neither…

Click here to read the full post at Parterre Box.

Categories: Criticism, Movies, PARTERRE BOX

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