Performance of the week: Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

geraldine page sweet bird of youth

I’m not that familiar with Geraldine Page as a whole, even though I am well aware that she is one of the most respected American film actresses. You can see from her work that she was a real method actress though, like Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft. It’s not just the display of genuine emotions in these actresses’ works, you can see this inhibition of the characters’ minds that makes a subtle difference as compared to those young “method” wannabes nowadays who just stay in character outside shooting. Her style may be a bit theatrical, but she was a real force on screen. Ok ok, I admit that the only other film of hers that I’ve watched is Interiors, but I was very impressed by her performance there, for which she received her sixth Oscar nomination. I mean, how can anyone ever forget that church scene? Fantastic.

So far, I can say that I’m really enjoying her works on film, and I’m more than eager to discover some of her other movies, especially her Oscar-winning performance in The Trip to Bountiful (eighth nomination, 25 years after her first, take “that” all those “overdue” actors out there lol kidding).

Geraldine Page received her first three Oscar nominations for her first three films, which is kinda impressive, isn’t it? For playing Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth, she received her third Oscar nomination, second in the Best Actress category. It’s interesting to note how she won the Golden Globe in both 1961 and 1962, but lost the actual Oscar to someone else. That’s something about the Oscars in the 60s that I find interesting: unpredictability. It’s interesting to note how so many of the best actress winners actually didn’t sweep the precursor awards and were in a way considered “surprise” winners. I really wish it was still like that. Anyway, many people are crazy over Page’s work here, saying that she should have won the Oscar. While this is terrific work indeed, I wouldn’t be so sure to confirm this as yet. 1962 was one of the best years for Best Actress, and even though I have yet to watch Katharine Hepburn’s supposedly superb performance, I can safely say the other 4 were extremely deserving, even Lee Remick. Seriously, I think all the performances that year, even in Best Actor, had their share of supporters who think they should have won (Peter O’Toole vs Jack Lemmon!). I  mean, even though I would have gone with Bette Davis myself for Best Actress, can anyone really be mad with Anne Bancroft’s terrific work in The Miracle Worker? Not me.

Right now, I can say that Page’s performance here is really great, but her movie did affect my appreciation of her work overall. Sweet Bird of Youth is no doubt a great film, but I feel that it is the lesser of the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ works.  It’s definitely a very good film, and under a lesser writer it would have been considered a terrific achievement. I just feel that the emotions and tension aren’t as strong in this one, and the story isn’t as tight. Sure, the characters are always interesting, but they don’t come together as well as his other works. At times it really feels like two separate story lines running concurrently, with the story about Alexandra being the more interesting one even though it isn’t exactly the central focus of the film. The movie seems to be more interested in Chance’s (Paul Newman) determination to rebuild his relationship with Heavenly Finley (played by an Oscar-nominated Shirley Knight), going against her politician father “Boss” Finley (played by Oscar winner Ed Begley). Somehow I just don’t feel as interested in these characters and performances as compared to Page’s Alexandra, which you could say is a true testament to the strength of her work here.

Alexandra Del Lago is a (typical Tennessee Williams’ leading lady) faded movie star who merely wants to drink to forget about her flopped movie. She spends approximately the first 40 minutes of the film entirely drunk, and it is really up to Page to make it work. And miraculously, she does. Right from the start, we see Alexandra waking up in the car to demand a drink before passing out again. Page’s theatrical style really worked here, infusing humour into the bitterness of this woman. I mean, there’s something so fabulous about this drama queen’s diva antics, such as when she demanded for an oxygen mask because she “couldn’t breathe”, and Page nailed all these moments without making it seem overly ridiculous. She’s such a pathetic character, and yet her presence is so strong throughout. Even though she is so broken down and depressed, Page chooses to use a bitter, pathetic but memorable approach instead of the usual moping around and tears. You can always sense that this woman loves to make a scene, even though she is a faded movie star. How can anyone forget the way she drunkenly collapsed in front of everyone? Or when she begs Chance to leave the town and even agreeing to fulfil his contract? Or the scene where she recalls her flopped movie while staring coldly into the mirror?

Yet even though Alexandra spends a great majority of the film drunk, Page always suggests that there is a kind of toughness, even a manipulative side inside her. The scene that best exemplifies this would be when Chance attempts to blackmail her, and how she merely laughs him off (“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way and it will never be me”). She just makes Paul Newman look so pathetic next to her, even though he is the one with tricks up his sleeves. Her final scene with him is fantastic; the way she initially brushed him off upon learning about her success, and then suddenly sucking up to him again and offering her help when she realised he had something she needed. Page shows the two-sided, complex nature of this character with such ease, making her an even more fascinating personality.

My main issue with the performance, however, is the way the story treats her character (which isn’t her fault). I can see that her performance was great, but at times it really felt that she was there just to be a great character, to bring out the story’s themes and messages and to be made use of by Chance in the beginning. Like I said, the story isn’t as tight as some of William’s other works and it did give me a “what’s the point?” feeling at times, even though I greatly prefer her story to the love story between Heavenly and Chance.

Still, this is a terrific performance by a great actress whom I am slowly discovering. Geraldine Page is just delightful to watch as the broken down Alexandra.

p.s. I’ve been busy moving to my new place nowadays, so I’m going to be slightly slower with the movies.

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