According to Judge Bill Gibron, there is no better example of old-fashioned Hollywood superstardom than Vivian Leigh or theatrical greatness than Tennessee Williams. Sadly, this version of the scribe's slim novella does neither legend justice.
They called it love…and it was for sale.
When her wealthy husband dies during a trip to Rome, famed actress Karen Stone (Vivian Leigh) decides to quit the business and enter a kind of exile. Devastated by her spouses' sudden death, and hitting a show business age where performers pass from perfunctory to pathetic, Karen believes that she can handle the loneliness of living in Italy by herself. All goes well until she meets up with the wily Contessa (Lotte Lenya, From Russia with Love) and her frequent escort, Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty, Bonnie and Clyde). She eventually strikes up a friendship with the young man, and things soon turn serious…and sexual. While she doesn't initially know it, Karen comes to learn that Paolo is a gigolo, and the Contessa is his "keeper," taking part of his pay to keep him in lonely, desperate women. Still, there seems to be something different about this amorous arrangement. Paolo claims to genuinely care for Karen and she falls hopelessly in love with him. It looks like money has no meaning in this relationship and Karen seems convinced that this will be The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone…if only for a little while.
There is no denying it—even four decades after her death, and 70-plus years since she started in films, Vivian Leigh is a superstar. Her celebrity glows from her in a shimmering halo that flawlessly frames her fabulous yet fragile face. Though her career contained only 19 films and a mere half-dozen true starring roles, her image is displayed forever in the gallery of our cinematic imagination. Whether as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Emma Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman, or Blanche Dubois opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, the two-time Oscar winner performed perfectly. Behind the scenes, however, she was a woman haunted by demons both personal and public. Her famed marriage to Laurence Olivier started in scandal and ended 20 years later in shattering heartbreak. Rumored to have suffered from manic depression, she was a four-pack-a-day smoker who never shook the case of tuberculosis she contracted while performing for troops in Africa during World War II. Though she was pigeonholed as the prissy Southern belle at the center of Margaret Mitchell's seminal sudser, there was more to this British beauty than accolades and attractiveness.
All of this is important to note when judging the rather routine The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Penned by relative screen neophyte Gavin Lambert from a highly autobiographical novella by legendary playwright Tennessee Williams, this first-time feature film effort from TV and stage director José Quintero (Tony winner for helming Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten) is a slow, subtle character study of desperate people practicing the art of using each other. It represents a decent turn by Leigh, a rather awkward one from Warren Beatty (who personally sought out Williams for the role), and a totally deranged depiction of evil by Austrian artifact Lotte Lenya. All three thespians are hemmed in by a script that does a helluva lot of suggesting but very little explaining. Leigh is never given a clear age (her character is supposed to be 20 years younger than her husband, but he appears about 55 in the film's prologue) or a clear purpose for staying on in Rome. Sure, she feels abandoned and alone, especially after a professional career described as "more personality than performer." But motivation is not one of Roman Spring's strong points.
Indeed, the film feels like it's trying to get by on titillation and tawdriness alone. The subject matter must have really shook them up in '61, though May to December romances—even one's involving the exchange of "gifts"—had long been part of the Tinseltown lexicon. Perhaps it's because Lambert, via Williams, portrays everyone as completely callous and manipulating. Even our heroine suddenly sees the light about halfway through the narrative and turns calculating and spiteful. This makes things difficult dramatically, since we need to sympathize with someone and both Paolo and the Contessa are too horrid to identify with. Leigh seems poised for a possible epiphany and we root for her to take down these money-grubbing good-for-nothings pronto. Somewhere along the line, though, Williams wants his leads to suffer and suffer hard, and Leigh is launched into a series of last-act humiliations that add up to very little in the way of emotional entertainment. As a matter of fact, most of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a waiting game, a cinematic pit stop where simmering, unspoken sexuality is supposed to keep us interested. Unfortunately, it really doesn't work.
More Tennessee Williams-lite than the good old-fashioned Southern Gothic we expect from the author, this is a movie mired in its star power and very little else. Rome could be Romania for all we see of it (there are a few interesting travelogue moments) and there's a ridiculously out of place subplot about a sinister suitor/stalker who consistently hangs out beneath Mrs. Stone's apartment, following her wherever she goes. Since this is the man who penned Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire, we anticipate some manner of horrifying conclusion. Naturally it never comes, but the resolution of this underlying plot point proves that The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is not out to meet expectations. While that would normally be a good thing, especially in the arena of a tired romantic drama, it means that we are more underwhelmed than satisfied with the scenarios that play out. In the end, we feel gypped that we didn't get to see Leigh pour on the acting chops. Sadly, this would be her second-to-last chance to do so. After a brief appearance in Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools, she finally succumbed to TB in 1967 at age 53. Instead of going out with a bang, we are left with this less than exciting memento of an otherwise amazing career.
Warner Brothers is releasing The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as part of their box-set collection of Tennessee Williams films and one has to say that the transfer isn't all that impressive. Faded and containing a couple of obvious flaws (especially during a pivotal scene near the end), the image isn't horrible, but when compared to other remasters of "classic" titles, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is less than stellar. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital mono is perfectly fine. As for added content, the sole significant bonus is a 12-minute featurette on the film that discusses the personal problems facing leads Leigh and Beatty at the time, William's injection of his own fears into the storyline and how Jill St. John felt snubbed on the set (Leigh never spoke to her). While it really does nothing to tell us how the film was made (director Quintero gets a single sentence mention), there is still enough backstage intrigue to make the overall discussion worthwhile.
With the frankness of the '60s sexual revolution making stories like The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone more or less puritanical in their purpose, all we are left to rely on here is the presence of the actors. With Vivian Leigh and Warren Beatty, the star power is electric. Sadly, the film itself is a rather dim bulb.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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