Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth

Shirley Knight received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Heavenly Finley in Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth. The movie itself is more of an actor's showcase than a great film. Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, and Ed Begley (in his Oscar-winning role) are all very good, with Page being the clear standout of the film with her absolutely outstanding performance. Knight has the most thankless role in the entire film, as her character is the worst written and severely underutilized. The film is about the return of Chance Wayne (Newman) to his hometown, where he hopes to entice his ex-girlfriend Heavenly to return with him to Hollywood despite the resistance of her father (Begley), a local political boss. Knight doesn't have a single scene with Geraldine Page, however, which is a shame.

When we first see Heavenly Finley, Shirley Knight makes an incredibly good impression, giving a weary and hugely self-aware performance. From the start of the film we are told that Heavenly is under the control of her father, but the scene where we actually see her she proves to be much more hardened and clever than the rest of the characters give her credit. Knight imbues Heavenly with this defiant resentment towards her father, which is startling different than we as viewers would have expected. Her surprising intelligence mixed with her good looks creates a sort of alluring intelligence, and she is clearly knows all about and is not fooled by any of her father's tricks. This first scene gives you high hopes for the performance of Shirley Knight, who is absolutely startling and strong, far cry from the beautiful love interest she is intended to be.

Sadly, however that one scene is just about all that we really get to see from Shirley Knight. The rest of the film she never seems to get another chance to expand on that intelligence she showed in the first scene, but instead is dragged around by the other characters to keep her away from Newman. For a character that seemed so independent and clever on first glance, Heavenly is so weak and easily manipulated for the rest of the film and it's almost a slap in the face. Her one or two scenes with Newman show them to have a strange but stilted chemistry, and all the 'fire' in their relationship is mostly told rather than shown. All that she showed in her first scene is gone around him. The scene with the boat is strange and Knight isn't given enough to work with, and the rest of the film she might as well be a statue with the amount stone-faced stoicism she has.

When in comes down to it, Shirley Knight's performance hinges on a single scene, which quite frankly is enough to make her deserve the nomination. Had her performance been able to keep up with that high quality she would have been a formidable contender this year, but the script treats Heavenly more as a prize than a character. The rating I'm giving her might seem high considering the amount of negatives I threw at her in the rest of this review, but for that one scene she really is a wonder to behold. 3.5/5 Thelmas.

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