There are numerous qualities that make SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH a stellar film, starting with the tremendous source material. Williams' tale of fading film actress and princess-by-marriage Alexandra Del Largo escaping Hollywood after a failed comeback attempt and being taken advantage of by aspiring actor/gigolo Chance Wayne is full of ripe drama, all of which is fully exploited by the 1962 film. Williams' typical subplots of southern hypocrisy are also well incorporated into central story by director/screenwriter Richard Brooks (who also helmed 1958's sensational CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF), and actually heighten the tension of the piece. Even with the censorship of early-sixties cinema (including an unnecessarily re-written ending), Brook's SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH still packs a mean punch.
Also crucial to the film's success is casting. No matter what film you're watching, you can always depend on Paul Newman to deliver the goods (which is precisely why he remained a top box office drawl up through the mid-eighties), and he gives one of his absolute best performances SWEET BIRD. Newman had originated the role of Chance in the original stage production, and his immortal screen performance of the role has clearly benefited from the hundreds times that he had previously played the role on stage. Arrogant, masculine, and painfully gorgeous, Newman nearly incinerates the colloid! Also returning from the original stage play is Geraldine Page as Alexandra, the ultimate boozing, wash-up actress. Page is nothing short of sensational a true thinking, feeling, conflicted woman who is desperate to run away from her problems, but completely uncertain of her next move. Alexandra is vain, insecure, and even comedic at times, and Page finds the perfect balance in her portrayal, as she understands that the very qualities that make Alexandra so strong is also what causes her to be weak. Page won a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, but lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft for her tour de force performance in THE MIRACLE WORKER - seeing that both performances are so phenomenal, I would venture to say that the votes for both awards were probably mighty close.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive. Ed Begley won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as 'Boss' Finely, and it is refreshing to see the actor let loose in a vile performance without any obvious apprehension. Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock are great in supporting bits, and Oscar-nominated Shirley Knight is hauntingly lovely as the appropriately named "Heavenly." Director Brooks also makes excellent use of the widescreen frame, composing many exceptional shots that are all but destroyed when the film is altered from its original Panavision format.
Certainly some viewers will carp about the re-written ending (the studio demanded that things end "happily") as well as the removal of such hot-button topics as abortion and castration to appease the censors, yet none of these omissions dramatically affect the film. Even though he caved in to the studio in terms of the finale, director Brooks must be given credit for focusing on the characters and dialogue and avoiding the temptation to "dress" the play up for movie audiences. The film is firmly planted in its central relationships, and this is what carries the day. No matter how censorious the Production Code may have been, no one could mask the white-hot dynamic between Newman and Page.