Saturday, August 26, 2006

Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

"Sweet Bird of Youth" flew into theatres simultaneously shrieking "Art" and "Adults Only". I love Geraldine Page. And this is often regarded as her one unassailably great screen performance. I've never quite bought it. It has its moments - and it's never boring. But there's a glass ceiling here that she never quite breaks through. I think I blame it on Richard Brooks. Of course, the screenplay's shocking betrayal of the play's "adult" themes is legendary. The Hayes Office can take a bow here. But the decision to fiilm it in Metrocolor and Cinemascope on false looking studio sets sucks the life out of the picture at every turn. And don't get me started on the clumsy flashbacks or the endless ham-fisted reprises of "Ebb Tide"on the soundtrack. Let's just get to Shirley Knight. In a DVD interview, Knight credits her co-stars with teaching her the real meaning of acting. I don't dispute it. And Knight certainly became a great actor - formidable successor to Constance Ford and her monster mothers, but with a sideline in warmth and tenderness that was never part of the Ford playbook. I think it's safe to say that what she ostensibly learned on "Sweet Bird of Youth" bore fruit on later projects. But there's no greatness in her Heavenly Findley. The acting is perfectly okay. After all, we ARE dealing with someone who's gifted. But there's nothing here you couldn't see any night of the week on a TV drama. And she's physically wrong for the part. Heavenly's the only character in the piece with real wisdom. And wisdom's no problem for Knight. But she's also a symbol of unattainable beauty. And for me, here at least, Knight gives off a kind of albino-ish sexlessness that disqualifies her as a dream girl. Tuesday Weld is a name that comes to mind. But, like Page, she'd need a different director and a less tacky production. My lingering image of "Sweet Bird of Youth" is not of Page or Newman. It's of Shirley Knight propped up in a beach chair, then plunked down on a pile of soundstage sand next to a motionless studio pond that's supposed to be the Gulf of Mexico, all carefully arranged in front of a wrinkled indoor sky. It couldn't be phonier - and in this atmosphere, even an actress of Shirley Knight's calibre is just stymied.

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