Shirley Knight received her second and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Heavenly Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a remarkable movie about Chance Wayne, a young man who, after having failed to become a movie star, comes back to his hometown in order to reunite with his former sweetheart, whose father, a powerful politician, previously put an end to their relationship. In the meantime, he tries to gain the favors of an older, messed-up movie-star hoping she will help him to get his big breakthrough on screen. It's a very underrated movie: I found it consistently compelling, beautifully written (obviously, as it is based on a Tennessee Williams's play) and very well-acted. Paul Newman doesn't give his best performance ever here but he still is pretty great and is a perfect fit for the role of Chance, which he plays with the needed charm and energy.
Shirley Knight is actually a very underrated actress: she has a strong screen-presence and she also is enormously talented (watch her performance in Duchtman: it's simply groundbreaking and one of the most unique and unforgettable performances I've ever seen). In some ways, she's the "forgotten" nominee of this category: after all, her fellow nominees either give somewhat iconic performances (Lansbury, Duke, Badham) or are iconic supporting actresses (Ritter). I went into Sweet Bird of Youth with absolutely zero expectations about Knight's work so I was surprised to find out that hers is an intelligent and luminous performance that impressed me much more than I thought it would. The character of Heavenly is, in some ways, a bit limited and it could have easily been just a boring, lifeless object of desire: Knight though manages to avoid that and in her first scene she does a great job in making Heavenly much more interesting than she is on paper. In her first confrontation with her father Knight shows a fierce intelligence and personality: the scene is far from being loud but Knight shows the fire and the resentment towards her father inside Heavenly. She also adds a touching bitterness and regret to her, and in her whole work Knight underlines a deep sadness in Heavenly that makes her a tragic and heartbreaking character (we later find out she got pregnant from Chance, who didn't know it, and was forced to undergo an abortion). For most of the time Heavenly is a rather passive character as her father keeps her under his power and influence but in every scene she's in Knight is so luminous and captivating that her performance is never truly affected by the nature of the role itself.
Knight and Newman actually don't share many scenes together and we only get a few glimpes of their relationship through some flashbacks: both actors though make the most of their screen-time and they share a beautiful, tender chemistry that make their romance incredibly sweet - in only a handful of scenes they make you root for them and hope that they will get back together. The scene at the lighthouse is just beautiful and the two actors achieve a touching intimacy and honesty of feelings that they're just a wonder to watch. Knight and Newman portrays beautifully the differences between Heavenly and Chance - he wants to become a big star, she just wants to spend her life with him - but their love is never in question. Their brief scene at the seaside when Chance attempts to talk to her but she runs away because she knows her father will hurt him is a small, touching moments and one the most memorable scenes of the movie. Most people probably think that the happy ending (that differs greatly from the play's ending) doesn't work but personally I think it does as I feel that Knight and Newman completely earn that moment - and Knight does some extremely moving and powerful acting in the final scene.
Heavenly Finley is not a particularly complex role but Shirley Knight gives so much life to her that she becomes one of the most interesting character of the movie. The role of Alexandra Del Lago is easily the best of the movie and Heavenly is not even half as amazingly written as that role is, but Knight delivers a moving, enchanting turn that defies the limitations of the script.