It’s always easy to look back at bygone eras in art and assume they were somehow different, even better. It feels like in my lifetime, the biggest movie stars were either action movie meatheads or pretty boy idols. While the 50s, 60s and 70s were all about legit actors in serious roles. But just like the 80s had action stars, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, who proved the action genre wasn’t brain dead, previous generations had plenty of vapid, vacant movie stars where their pursuit of fame greatly outweighed their desire to be great actors. Like Elvis in pretty much anything.
But one of the actors to perpetuate my belief that things were better back in the day, is Paul Newman. He had movie star good locks, he had movie star fame, he had movie star success. But with the years since his heyday, I have the benefit of only the real crackers remaining famous and relevant. So while I’m sure he made more than a few clunkers, his legacy means he’ll always be remembered for the crackers, like Sweet Bird of Youth.
Arriving back in his small home town in Florida with a drunk and passed out movie star (Geraldine Page as Alexandra Del Lago) in the backseat, Chance Wayne (Newman) is well known as the local stud who left to make it big in Hollywood. What Chance doesn’t know, is that he was manipulated into trying his luck in Hollywood by local fat cat, ‘Boss’ Finley. Finley didn’t like Chance sniffing around his daughter, Heavenly (Shirley Knight) back in the day, and he’s even less enthusiastic about it now that Chance is back in town.
With the swagger of a big shot returned to rub his success in the small town’s nose, Chance is soon revealed to be out of his element in Hollywood and even struggling to keep up with his home town rubes. Finley’s ruthless son, Tom Jr (Rip Torn), also steps in to finish what his father started, just with slightly more aggressive tactics. But more than just the Finley dynasty, Chance has to deal with parts of his own past that he didn’t even know he had been running from.
Sweet Bird of Youth is one of those movies without much in the way of good, pure people. Heavenly kind of fits the bill, but as important as she is to the movie in the way that she motivates the actions of Chance and Finley, as a character, she’s kind of secondary. Everyone else, including Chance, spends the majority of the movie acting out of pure self interest.
And that makes Sweet Bird of Youth all the more interesting. If everyone was a good guy from the outset, their motivations would be predictable, and their outcomes a foregone conclusion. Instead, the fallibility of these people keeps everything that much more real, that much more unpredictable, that much more believable and interesting.