Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 7, 2020)
Back in 1958, Paul Newman starred in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, a noteworthy adaptation of a Tennessee Williams property. Four years later, Newman gave Williams another go via 1962’s Sweet Bird of Youth.
Chance Wayne (Newman) grew up in a small town on the Gulf Coast, but he left to pursue dreams of show biz stardom. When these don’t work out as planned, he returns home to regroup.
Chance brings fading movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) with him, but whatever romantic entanglement he enjoys with her doesn’t keep him from other romantic pursuits. In particular, Chance finds himself with renewed interest in Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), a former girlfriend.
In addition to complications from this potential love triangle, Chance butts heads with Heavenly’s father, local political leader “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley). The old man never approved of Chance, and that adds another layer of complexity to Chance’s attempts to recapture his mojo.
Not only does Bird reunite Paul Newman with the work of Tennessee Williams, but also the earlier movie’s director/screenwriter Richard Brooks returns as well. Given that Cat worked well, this elevates expectations.
Unfortunately, Bird lacks the same impact as its predecessor. While not a dud, the film seems erratic and scattered.
Although Chance’s desire for Heavenly resides at the film’s core, that theme gets surprisingly little play. Their situation becomes more prominent as the movie progresses, but it still seems oddly diminished given its inherent importance to the overall tale.
Perhaps Brooks chose to avoid Chance/Heavenly because they form such a dull cinematic couple. As great as Newman and Knight look together, they ignite virtually no sparks, so their scenes together lack the necessary chemistry.
Also, Newman and Knight seem mismatched by age. It’s unclear how old either is supposed to be, but we sense they should be about the same age.
However, Newman was 11 years older than Knight. Of course, Newman looked amazing – he stakes a strong claim to the title of Most Handsome Male Movie Star ever - but the age gap remains obvious and a bit of a distraction since the film appears to posit both as the same age.
If I found a better-constructed film in other ways, I could more easily ignore this stretch of believability. As noted, the movie feels like it should concentrate on Chance and Heavenly, with dashes of Alexandra tossed in for love triangle drama, but the narrative fails to flow in an especially integrated manner.
Rather than deliver a coherent overall tale, we get semi-connected scenes that don’t really mesh. The characters don’t develop in an appreciable manner, so the entire project tends to seem stagnant.
Though Brooks opens up the settings, the actors betray the stage-bound nature of the product and tend to act! None offer bad performances, and it seems tough to dislike such a good cast, but the castmembers opt for pretty broad work that can veer toward hammy.
Of course, that seemed true of Cat as well, but the story and personalities of that flick proved compelling enough to overcome any potential concerns. Unfortunately, the mix of lackluster plot and dull characters makes Bird a disappointment.