While in Rome a few months ago we visited the Spanish steps, one of the famous tourist sites in that great city. I mentioned to my traveling companions that the steps played an important role in the Tennessee Williams penned “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” I attempted to summarize the plot for them, but they did not seem all that interested, if at all. As fortune would have it, the movie, based on the novel was on TCN last night.
“The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” was released in 1961 (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Roman_Spring_of_Mrs._Stone). It starred Vivian Leigh as a faded actress (Karen Stone) who travels to Italy with her husband after having a disastrous stage performance as Juliet. The critics said she was too old for the part. En route to Rome, her husband died on the airplane. The story has Karen meeting the Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales (played by the wonderful Lotte Lenya), who is a not-so- high-class pimp. She introduces Mrs. Stone to Paolo, played by Warren Beatty. Paolo is a gigolo who makes his living off of rich older women. Karen falls for his charms, realizing all along that she is being used, but in spite of herself, falls for the cad. In the end, he deserts her and she is left taking the risk of allowing a man who has been stalking her to enter her apartment.
The beautiful Vivian Leigh was in the waning years of her illustrious film career, although still beautiful. She was one of those actors from the golden age of cinema who was elegant and who brought refinement to her acting. She didn’t put her fingernail in her mouth to look coy or cute. She didn’t have to giggle her hair around to look beguiling. She played Karen as a dazed woman who had lost her career and her husband. Thus, Karen’s attraction to Paulo did not grow from lust or a new found sexual freedom, but rather from the numbing loneliness and loss of the anchor of her marriage and career. She was like a pinball being bounced from bumper to bumper - without thought or reaction. Sex with Paolo was a tranquilizer and a way to make her numbness subside just a bit. Sometimes she would be exhilarated by the thought of having such a handsome man pay attention to her, but she would quickly return to automatic pilot after that thought left. Leigh’s performance was not large and grand, but she captured the existential numbness perfectly.
Beatty, while very handsome, was no match for Leigh. His supposed Italian accent was more like Russian. Beatty got Paolo’s petulance correct, but the smoldering sensuality was simply not within his grasp. Beatty successfully pulled off Paolo’s wondering eye and his disdain for Americans, including Karen from time to time.
Lotte Lenya was perfect as the sleazy countess. She was cynical and took delight in making fun of Karen behind her back. A particularly powerful scene for me was when the Countess asked Karen for $1000. She did not hesitate to ask. Karen, in a robot-like fashion, offered $500. With all of the chutzpah in the word, Lenya came back as ask for $750. Karen stayed at $500, but this bargaining made the Countess seem even slimier.
After begin rejected by Paolo, and having been made fun of by the Countess Karen is desperate, and throws the keys to her apartment out the window to a young man who had been following Karen throughout Rome. He was dirty, and unkempt, but attractive. It was clear that to Karen, at the moment, any port in the storm would do. It was a powerful ending to the story.
Rome looked wonderful in the movie. It was nice to see it without graffiti. It was fun to watch Karen being driven around in a huge 1960s American car that was twice as long as the everyday Italian variety. There were several cars of this vintage in the movie, including a Chrysler Imperial with its gun-sight tail light mounted on huge fins. There was also a Continental with sharp grand fins. The cinematography was luxurious and made the most of the Italian vistas.
By today’s standards, this movie seems tame. It does not have overt sexual acts, but it alludes to them. It does not have heavy breathing and clawing, but the passion is assumed. But, to see a great actress at work is worth two hours.