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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

The Tennessee Williams Collection

This excruciating bit of pulp does bring quite a pedigree. It's the 1961 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' 1950 novella. Vivien Leigh plays the rich, lonely widow losing herself to dissolute "drifting" in Rome. Warren Beatty is her callow lover, a handsome Italian gigolo. Leigh was 48, her career ending; Beatty was 23 and just starting. For her role as the cynical pimp renting Italian studs to rich widows, Lotte Lenya earned an Academy Award nomination.

Sounds like a fine combo platter, doesn't it? Well, in this case those ingredients got slapped together into a triple-decker crap sandwich. At the end of December '61, just two months after 24-year-old Beatty caught some well-earned attention in Splendor in the Grass, this now nearly forgotten film just about squashed his career like a bug caught running toward a wedding cake.

The fat finger of blame first lands, plunk, right on the screenplay. It's credited mostly to Gavin Lambert, who in '65 adapted his own novel, Inside Daisy Clover, for Natalie Wood. Roman Spring's script delivers a far more golden pedigree, seeing as how it's adapted from Tennessee Williams' 1950 novella. Yet the prose is so purple and the tone so overripe that the film often feels like a kitschy parody of Williams' florid excesses, or a worst-parts mashup of Williams and D.H. Lawrence. Starting with the thuddingly expository voice-over narration — Leigh's fading Broadway diva is "drifting, if not drowning, in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapors" — what wants to be mature, sensual romance-novel boilerplate becomes instead a plodding exercise in intriguingly cast camp.

When the film gets talked about at all, the conversation typically moves into whether we're seeing Leigh's own personal crises shaping and shading her tragically unhappy Karen Stone. Leigh's recently crumbled marriage to Laurence Olivier, and her history of debilitating depression coupled with a fear of failure, all appear to be there onscreen. Like Leigh, Karen is fiftyish yet still striking, a formerly revered actress obsessed by negative reviews in a young woman's profession, and is reacting to a marriage that has just come to a miserable stop. Karen seeks escape in Rome after her ailing husband dies en route. While seeking "light in the dark corners" of her life, she falls vulnerable to Paolo (Beatty), who belongs to a stable managed by a vulturous contessa in a crimson boudoir (Lenya, stealing her scenes by ladling up the Williams-speak like epigrammatic goulash).

At first wary, and despite warnings from an old friend (Coral Browne), Karen ultimately embraces determined Paolo's appeal, and the pair become lovers. From there it's all hell and handbaskets, jealousy and neuroses, especially after a young American actress/twinkie (Jill St. John) also catches Paolo's opportunistic eye.

It's a bleary script, trite and unfilling and interminable, clotted with dialogue that might read well in the tattered, yellowed paperback but just plops leaden onscreen. It's not helped by wallowing in that charming puritanical leitmotif, sex = death. Leigh's rote performance wavers between on-the-money naturalness and a mannered archness that frequently puts quotation marks around her acting. Devoted Leigh fans tend to praise her "raw" or "brave" work here. While she is Vivien Leigh, which counts for something, that's just sentimentalizing her autopilot presence because of what she was experiencing in real life.

More interesting is Warren Beatty. Not because he's better than Leigh, or even noticeably good. (His uncertain Italian accent may be the movie's only memorable element.) It's that today we can't help but watch Paolo through the lens of where Beatty would go soon afterward with Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, and his own "gigolo" image. The scenes that Leigh and Beatty share are at least interesting in that regard. During her scenes with them, Jill St. John is so insubstantial she hardly registers in the frame. In this DVD's new featurette about the production, we learn that Leigh never spoke to St. John at all during filming, and that Beatty was so hungry for an image-defying role that he borrowed money to visit Williams in Puerto Rico, bought a bottle of "man tan" and an Italian phrasebook, and ingratiated himself directly to the venerable author for the part, which had been putatively given to another actor.

When the film opened, its overwhelmingly negative reviews were such a blow to Beatty that they nearly knocked him out of acting altogether.

Roman Spring was the first feature film directed by José Quintero, a well-regarded theater director. He appears incapable of giving the artifice and stagy prose sufficient energy or charisma, so we get a funereal lassitude almost by default. It is a well-dressed production, though, with Harry Waxman's cinematography and location shooting through Rome's bygone grandeur.

Finally there's the question of the mysterious shabby Young Man who constantly waits and watches Karen from beneath her balcony. Whether Quintero (or Williams) considered him her Death personified, Quintero sets up the final scene — broken and abandoned, she tosses her apartment keys down to him — such that we're forgiven if we expect Rod Serling to stroll in from off-camera for the epilogue.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video brings The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone to DVD with a so-so print and transfer (1.78:1, anamorphic). Color, contrast, definition, and DD 1.0 audio are good, but the print is marred frequently by flecks and wear, and we caught at least one moment of distracting jitter. This title's status as the runt of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection boxed set is clear.

The new featurette, "Mrs. Stone: Looking for Love in All the Dark Corners" (12 mins.), focuses on Leigh and Beatty in a perfunctory, tabloidy fashion, plus a few moments on some rather strained psycho-biographical parallels between Williams and his Karen Stone. Its talking-head material comes from Williams biographer Donald Spoto, Beatty biographer Suzanne Finstad, and Jill St. John. Also here is the pompous, overwritten theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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