william steig drawing

August 14, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Tempers: Sweet Bird of Youth

You: If you had to have a dinner party with 10 famous people of your choosing who would you pick?

Me: Well I’m glad you asked me that. When planning a fantasy celeb dinner party you must remember that it’s still a party. Gandhi, for example, is a great man, but at a party he might be a downer. With that in mind, my choices are: Jean Cocteau, Tina Fey, James Franco, Miles Davis, Groucho Marx, Nicki Minaj (Groucho needs a sassy young thing to chase) and two Geraldine Pages. One to perform, and one to interrogate.

I first met Geraldine as Alexandra De Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth. It was love at first sight and we have enjoyed a lovely relationship ever since.

This 1962 Richard Brooks film stars Page and Paul Newman who reprise their Broadway roles as aging movie star Alexandra De Lago (Princess Kosmonopolis) and sad gigolo Chance Wayne. During a screening of her latest “come back” picture De Lago is horrified to see that her youth has faded. She flees the theater mid-showing and embarks on a “I need to forget who I am” bender that spans several continents. Along the way De Lago picks up Chance who fulfills the duties of his position while attempting to exploit her fame and power. You see, Chance is desperate to reclaim the happiness of his youth: Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), the perfect white, blonde, nearly translucent example of virginal goodness. Unfortunately for Chance, Heavenly is the daughter of evil politician and virtue preservationist Boss Finley (Ed Begley).

Though a shirtless Newman lends fuel for masturbatory fire and Begley is despicably grotesque, this is really Page’s show.

You might consider Bird a poor choice for inclusion in Tempers. Many other characters  scream louder and kick harder. We all know Sonny Corleone has a scary temper, but the anxiety caused by unpredictability is also frightening. Deep in post-failure nihilism, Alexandra is too deflated to rage in her usual way. Instead she battles like a wilting Venus Fly Trap. Her fury never fully surfaces. She is forever on the verge of a tantrum, dropping one shoe and dangling the other.

Still, she is a power.

First, I must praise Page’s voice. Unpredictable in volume, cracking, wavering, with bursts of strength. When Alexandra laughs an invisible imp slaps her hard on the back and the mocking that’s been stuck there for hours is finally dislodged and jumps out.

Her performance has always reminded me of two people, the character Sarah in The Hustler played by Piper Laurie, and the actress  Jo Van Fleet. The Piper Laurie similarity might just be a “vulnerable lady has a relationship with Paul Newman” association, but Fleet feels similar in a funny way. They share a certain thick sexuality and no bullshit presence. They are both Women, popped out the womb wide hipped and 35.

Next, I must discuss her body. How she glides from bed to balcony in the most appropriately melodramatic way. How her hand, at the end of a very loose wrist, elegantly punctuates all her sentences like the swoosh of a feather boa thrown across shoulders.

“You beautiful stupid young man that is not pot, it is hashish” Swoosh.

Her fingers are long and topped with pointy, frosty mauve nails. Perfect for ripping off dicks, or tracing wrinkles round her eye. Her face is not tight, it has wonderful movement. I realize there are few women who would welcome this as a compliment “Oh look how your face flops! it’s so beautiful”, but as an actress, what better face can you have than one that moves when you need it to?

“In a few years you will be through with your good looks and I will be through with you!

Do you remember that part in My Man Godfrey where William Powell brings a hangover drink to Alice Brady to “chase away the fairies”? Well, I imagine Alexandra has them too, only hers are sitting in a theater gazing up expectantly, waiting for a ground breaking performance. When Alexandra shuts her dressing room door, the fairies are still there. When she leaves the theater, the fairies ride along in the cab back home. They are always there at the foot of her feet. She cannot let them down. She is always on. Always in performance mode.

But I adore Alexandra’s theatrics.

I love a dramatic woman, what can I say? Rationality and common sense have no place in being fantastic. My dearest female friends cut their lives out of the most ridiculous fabric. It is really unbelievable (I do not believe it myself sometimes). Maintaining these friendships is no walk in the park, but what you lose in stability, you gain in fantastic adventures, vulgar recounts of sexual activity, irresponsible shopping sprees, and brilliance. Pure, shining, brilliance. The sun rises and sets on these ladies. Things get done and undone. Things happen, and that’s what it’s all about… But I know where it all comes from.

To understand Alexandra and to love her, you must understand darkness intimately. You must know its ins and outs, its outs and ins. You must know how it is to lay in bed and stare at the hangers on the doorknob and not get up, and never get up. The sinus issues that come from sleeping too long must be familiar to you. The inability to leave the house because you can’t find the shoes that make you feel ok must be known to you. The seductive power of painkillers and benzos and booze must be in the back of your mind. You must know all this and how it goes. You must know where these things come from and why an irresponsible shopping spree might be the only thing saving you from something else. Why the dinner plans must be canceled at the last minute. Why sleep is not a nightly thing, but something that happens on its own every now and then. You have to know the story. If you do, you will love her. Really love her.

Here is one of my favorite Pablo Neruda poems.
Alexandra would have understood it implicitly.

Walking Around

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.
It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.

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  1. Voomnomore

    An altogether engaging take on Geraldine Page and Paul Newman (with whom I once had the pleasure of spending a day with). Page was always a commanding board treader and a wonderful movie actress. Who can forget her no bullshit power over Clint Eastwood in “The Beguiled”, or when F. Murray Abraham called her name for best Academy actress?

    I wanted though to comment on the Neruda poem and how it relates to my favorite Newman role, that of the bottomed-out, alcoholic lawyer as “The Verdict” begins. It is as if Newman had read this poem and had found his identification for the role in it, especially concerning nuns, and “hospitals where bones fly out the window”, where “slow dirty tears are falling”, and how he is “sick of being a man”. In this movie, Newman seems to borrow the post-failure nihilism found in the Geraldine Page performance in “Sweet Bird of Youth”. You might think he learned that from Ms. Page.

  2. Mimi Stratton

    You know who she reminds me of? The character called Mag Wildwood in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, the one who fell down flat on her face drunk at the wild party.

  3. I actually just picked the DVD for this film up at a yard sale for $1. Looks like I made a hell of a buy!
    Paul Newman is one of my favorite actors, and I think he’s at his best when teamed with a strong female lead (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is a perfect example. Newman’s performance blew me away, but that film belonged to Elizabeth Taylor),

    I’ll be checking SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH out this week.


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