“Tennessee Williams wanted the lead in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone to go to Katherine Hepburn, after seeing her performance as the scheming mother in Suddenly Last Summer. But Hepburn, who resented the way her advancing years had been treated in that film, had no intention of inviting comparison between herself and the lonely middle-aged actress who buys the attentions of a male hustler. Although the public was intrigued by rumors of an off-screen liaison between the film’s subsequent stars, Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, Spring was a disappointment at the box office. It seems that audiences were uncomfortable with the film’s depressing theme, and with the painful similarities between the lives of Vivien Leigh and the mentally unstable Mrs Stone.”
Penny Stalling. Flesh and Fantasy (1978)
If The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (the 1961 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams novel) is remembered at all today, it’s as a dusty and obscure minor footnote to the career of its leading lady Vivien Leigh (it would be her penultimate film; Leigh died of tuberculosis aged 53 in 1967). It seemingly never crops up on TV and is unavailable on DVD in the UK. As a fan of both Leigh and Williams (and intrigued by Spring’s sordid subject matter!), I had long been intrigued by this curiosity. When the British Film Institute in London held a retrospective season commemorating the 100th anniversary of Leigh’s birth in November 2013, I finally got to see it.
/ Make mine a Negroni: Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /
It certainly feels like a “lost” film. The BFI always sources the best quality prints they can – and this one frequently looked pretty scratchy and moth-eaten. In 1961 the film suffered by comparison with Leigh and Williams’ earlier triumphant collaboration on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she won her second Academy Award, and it was neither a critical or commercial success. Seeing it in 2013 for the first time, I would argue The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is ripe for a more generous reappraisal. Williams himself rated it highly, saying, “I think that film is a poem” in his 1972 memoirs (but then he also loved the catastrophic 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton mega bomb Boom!). Call me perverse, but I find Spring infinitely more enjoyable than the more highly regarded Streetcar.
/ Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /
The film is flawed but fascinating. It seethes with weird hybrid tensions. With its woman-of-a-certain age in peril heroine, Spring works as a lush old-fashioned conventional melodramatic “woman’s picture” awash with romantic masochism, stoical suffering and deluxe production values (the costumes, sets and Roman setting are pure eye candy). But it also plumbs the depths of some spicy lurid subject matter: self-destruction, sexual humiliation and glittering but empty hedonism in a milieu of pimps and prostitutes in Rome’s La Dolce Vita international cafe society. (Some of Spring’s nightclub and party scenes, with their grotesque celebrants, can be favorably compared to the earlier Fellini film). Intriguingly for modern audiences, the film is shot through with a definite queer sensibility (it’s surprisingly clear that those seeking firm-bodied Roman hustlers on the Spanish Steps are just as likely to be male as well as female; the role of Mrs Stone would probably make even more sense as an older gay man pining for his younger thug lover). It’s also convincingly permeated by a sense of real fatalistic despair almost from the very start (onscreen Leigh’s depression is almost tangible). And in its tense, shocking final moments, Spring packs the dread of a horror film.
/ The original theatrical trailer for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone /
/ Leigh, draped in haute couture by Balmain /
Leigh portrays the titular Mrs Karen Stone – a recently widowed and affluent middle-aged American actress adrift in Rome. Rich, lonely and vulnerable, Stone is easy prey for heartless gigolo Paolo (Warren Beatty) and his malevolent female pimp The Contessa (Lotte Lenya). Leigh is only 47 here but it has to be said she seems dramatically older. (And in the context of the story, the age of 47 seems to represent something significantly older than it does in 2013). Draped in haute couture by Balmain (shame about the gruesomely unflattering blonde wigs), she is still waveringly beautiful but careworn, ravaged and fragile. (Late-period Leigh’s deep bass voice may come as a surprise; it was strikingly lower by the 1960s after years of poor health and heavy smoking).
/ Ladylike and demure - but tortured /
Leigh is so perfect for the role, it's hard to believe it wasn't conceived with her in mind or that she wasn't the original choice. Her thin-skinned and delicate performance is a portrait of someone deeply wounded but striving to maintain a haughty dignity and detached froideur (she boosts her confidence and self-soothes with vice, chain-smoking and drinking Negroni cocktails). And yet Leigh had a tough core: she was a profoundly unsentimental actress. Whether as Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois or the complex and troubled Karen Stone, she never solicits the audience’s sympathy. Considering Spring is her second last film, Leigh ended her movie career on a high. My favorite moments of Leigh’s performance here are probably the simplest: the segments of Stone drifting aimlessly alone through Roman streets like a melancholy somnambulist, severely-etched and alienated in her ladylike suits, white gloves and cat’s eye sunglasses, are haunting. Thank God Katherine Hepburn didn't accept the role.
/ Like I said, the film has a genuinely queer sensibility: Warren Beatty wears very tight pants throughout and gets more than one lingering, admiring ass shot /
The film’s weakest link is callow young Warren Beatty, whose thick comedy Italian accent is frankly awful (his acting would improve considerably by Bonnie and Clyde in 1967). Why not cast an actual Italian actor as Paolo? The dark, swarthy and sensual Franco Citti had already smoldered playing sexy low-life pimps in two Pier Paolo Pasolini films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962). Or perhaps the French art cinema heartthrob Alain Delon, who at least was Continental - and by all accounts in real life every bit as predatory and amoral as Paolo! LuchinoVisconti’s bisexual protégé would have invested the part with some of the icy sociopathic menace he brought to Plein Soleil (1960). (In fact Delon had been considered for the role – but Leigh rejected him as “too pretty.” Perhaps she didn't want to share close-ups with him. Who could blame her not wanting to be compared to young Delon?).
/ Don't Smoke in Bed: Two ultra-sultry and homoerotic portraits of very young Delon by John S Barrington, a pioneer of gay beefcake / physique photography. Delon could have played the role of Paolo in his sleep. (Apparently Delon tried to suppress these photos later on. Read the biography Physique: The Life of John S Barrington by my friend, journalist and author Rupert Smith)
It could be argued the film is well and truly stolen from both Leigh and Beatty by the frankly amazing Lotte Lenya, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the toxic Contessa (two years later she would play Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love – her most famous movie role). The 63-year old Austrian actress and chanteuse (the definitive interpreter of her husband Kurt Weill’s songs, name-checked in the English lyrics to “Mack the Knife”) is utterly compelling: she practically purrs with smiling, serene evil. I literally gasped when she calls Stone a “chicken hawk” (a very John Waters moment. I told you this was a queer film). And don’t even get me started on how much I love The Contessa’s apartment. All the sets in Spring are amazing, but her flat – shared with a menagerie of cats - is truly brothel-like, a tart’s boudoir of crimson velvet furniture, flocked wallpaper and gilt.
/ Stirring up trouble: Lotte Lenya as the sinister Contessa. I love her blood-red and gold apartment /
As well as La Dolce Vita, for me Spring echoes Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) in its themes of sexual humiliation, cruelty and death, and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) for the joyless European jet set debauchery and luxurious settings. The story is full of Tennessee Williams’ essential recurring preoccupations: loneliness, fear of aging, compassion for human fragility, the need to live with illusions and occupations especially the concept of the beautiful young gigolo doubling as an angel of death (See also: Boom!).
One of Spring’s other intriguing themes is American new world naivety versus European old world decadence. During a heated argument, Paolo spits at Stone, “Rome is 3000 years old. You’re what – fifty?” Later, when someone describes Stone as “a great lady”, The Contessa is contemptuous, arguing there is "no such thing as great American lady" because great ladies do not occur in country less than two hundred years old. Stone is out of her depth in Italy – against the corrupt and damaged likes of Paolo and The Contessa, she doesn't stand a chance.
“A glamorous world – a strange romance!” the original theatrical trailer to The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone tantalizingly promised. The film offers a kinky glimpse of sex and dying in high society, viewed through a realm of genteel cocktail parties and gold cigarette cases.
/ Ominous: Karen Stone, stalked by death /
This great blog has some beautiful screen shots of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone's lavish sets and costumes
My reflections on another Tennessee Williams adaptation, the notorious Boom! (1968)
The screenplay for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone was adapted by Gavin Lambert (1924-2005). During the making of the film, Vivien Leigh was freshly divorced from Laurence Olivier and struggling with mental illness - and yet was consistently elegant and professional throughout. Read his sympathetic and insightful account of working Leigh here.
/ "Oh show me the me way to the next pretty boy ...": The incomparable Lotte Lenya (in 1962) singing us out with Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song"