"Sweet Bird of Youth" transfers to television Sunday as a worthy and interesting character drama about desperate, self-corrupting people losing their struggle to live.
Airing at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39), this version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon, softens some of the passion and rawness of Tennessee Williams' play. But writer Gavin Lambert and director Nicolas Roeg do capture the despair, isolation and utter hopelessness of Williams' huddled lost, who speak to us from the much-segregated South of the late 1950s.
The characters smell of inward decay. Flamboyant actress Alexandra Del Lago (Taylor) and opportunistic drifter Chance Wayne (Harmon) come together at a crossroads in their miserable lives, briefly merging their demons and their dreams in St. Cloud, Fla., the small town that Chance fled years ago.
In flight herself from the realities of age and a fading career, Alexandra has met and slept with the 30-ish Chance in Palm Beach after falling for his smile and special back rubs. In a stupor from drugs and booze, she now accompanies him back to St. Cloud, oblivious to his plans to exploit her and to the hostility and potential violence awaiting them from ambitious political boss Tom Finley (Rip Torn).
Harmon is credible and has the magnetism for Chance. But there's no danger in his performance, and that hurts.
Taylor, however, performs grandly as Alexandra, who arrives in town beside Chance in her leased fin-tail convertible with the top down, wearing a mink coat and sipping from a flask that almost seems to be an extension of her hand.
Although stout, Taylor at first looks almost too smoothly beautiful and youthful. Then comes the first close-up, when a network of thin lines appears beneath her eyes, revealing the very aging erosion that terrifies Alexandra. Watch for a wonderful scene when Alexandra, seeking security in her insecure companion, leans back against Chance, all wistful and dreamy, almost melting into his body. "By the time I was your age, I was already a legend," she says.
The legend blurs along with Chance's dreams, his hopes for resurrection dying in St. Cloud as an old rendezvous with Finley's daughter (Cheryl Paris) comes back to haunt him and ultimately costs him "the only thing you have to get by on." Three guesses.
In the 1962 movie version of "Sweet Bird of Youth," which starred Torn's late wife, Geraldine Page, and Paul Newman, the worst that the womanizing Chance had to face was a broken nose. On Sunday, true to the play, something far more extreme looms as a possibility.
In some ways, this adaptation is closer to the play than the movie was. In all ways, it's good viewing.