So, without further ado, let's get to the Supporting Actress who'll help Lulu inaugurate this new feature and who just happens to be the reliably delightful...
...Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
23 minutes on screen
6 scenes (including 2 wordless flashbacks)
19% of film's total screen time
Now, StinkyLulu would never claim that Shirley Knight is one of the greatest actresses of her era. Her filmography just doesn't hold up next to -- say -- a Burstyn, a Maclaine or a Fonda. But. StinkyLulu would staunchly proclaim that Knight is without a doubt one of the greater actresses of her generation, even though most of her best work has been captured not on celluloid but on the boob tube. Anyway. StinkyLulu loves Shirley Knight. That's that. And it's always a treat to see her radiant pre-plumpness, which is at its near best in 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth. (To see the full force of early Shirley, check out her performance as Lula in 1967's Dutchman & prepare to have your mind blown.)
Sweet Bird of Youth -- like most cinematic adaptations of Tennessee Williams at midcentury -- is very nearly a mess. Most essentially, the story's about Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), an uncommonly attractive young man who has no real idea who he is, what he wants, or how to get a clue. At the story's outset, Chance -- a fading gigolo by trade -- skids back into his hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the company of the Princess Cosmonopolous -- aka the gruesomely addicted actress Alexandra del Lago (Geraldine Page) -- to get "his girl" and take her away with him to fame and fortune. Chance's girl is Shirley Knight's character -- the improbably named Heavenly Findley (bummer of a birthmark, huh). Of course, this ain't the first time Chance has "come back" for Heavenly and the film demonstrates (through insipid flashbacks) just how viciously Heavenly's father, the nasty Boss Findley (Supporting Actor winner, Ed Begley), has gotten rid of Chance each time. Sweet Bird of Youth is an overripe story, chock full of sordid secrets and shocking confrontations, and yet...Chance Wayne remains one of Williams' most mysterious and evocative protagonists and Paul Newman's performance in the part is a recurrent revelation. (Shirley Knight was one of the few newcomers to film production, which was rich with carryovers from the acclaimed broadway cast.)
At first glance, Heavenly seems to be there to be an embodied paragon of Southern white womanhood, but Shirley Knight's performance -- through languid gestures and startling anger -- immediately flags that there's something greater at stake for this belle. As the idealized love that Chance just can't shake, Knight's Heavenly emerges as perhaps the most interesting of Williams' delicate feminine flowers. And that's in no small part because, in Sweet Bird of Youth, even Heavenly has a sordid past (an illegitimate, terminated pregnancy via Chance in the screen version; a hysterectomy as a result of venereal disease via Chance on stage). In the film, Knight's portrayal tracks Heavenly's evolution from the naive schoolgirl to the weary young woman, still beautiful but nearly worn out by the uses she has been put by her father's political drive. Knight's best work can be seen in her first scene opposite her father, in which she confronts his hypocrisy and is humiliated for it. Here, in a scene that could merely be saucy or sassy, Knight conveys Heavenly's complicated intelligence and deep sadness, which her father simply cannot see. Knight's performance also avoids easy pitfalls when she tries to get Chance to give up on her. Knight's Heavenly knows that Chance is nearly as dumb as a post (but in a sweet way) and that he's getting far out of his depth. Knight's eyes convey all of this pity and fear and sadness -- too bad she has to do all this while driving a motorboat and hollering to Chance who's climbing a lighthouse. And even though the filmmakers tweak the story to somehow give it a happy romantic resolution (and thereby divesting it of its nearly classical gory tragedy) the film works as well as it does largely because Knight's Heavenly actually comes off as an unusually intelligent, even special young woman.
Shirley Knight's performance as Heavenly is certainly not the best Supporting Actressing of this year. (Not even of this film, as Madeleine Sherwood chacha and Mildred Dunnock dither their respective circles around the whole cast in small but instrumental roles.) But Shirley Knight is smart, sweet, surprising and sexy as Heavenly, a sublimely difficult role which also happens to be the lynch(!)-pin determining whether and how Sweet Bird of Youth makes any sense at all. Indeed, it's great work from one of the greater actresses of her generation...
Be sure to click back on Wednesday and on Sunday for the final two contenders in July's Supporting Actress Sundays as well as the 1962 Supporting Actress Smackdown! Will it be a rout (ala Lansbury) or will something more surprising happen... Tune in to see the fireworks!