MR. STONE, THAT IS...                                    

Tennessee Williams was writing about himself in the novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He worried about his growing sexual promiscuity, that his “drifting” addiction, as with booze and pills, had started taking over his life. Good friend Donald Windham said the story “was the first self-portrait after Tennessee’s success—and it displays a hair-raising degree of self-knowledge.” His longest fictional prose is internalization but not self-therapeutic; he’d go on to even more excessive drift. Before the movie version starring Vivien Leigh as Karen Stone, Vittorio De Sica wanted to film it with Greta Garbo. Intriguing, but Leigh isn’t a poor second choice. With her coiled class and seasoned articulation, in her last major starring role (she was a victima invitada in Ship of Fools), she does decent justice to Williams and it’s a huge relief not to see her ready for the straitjacket, or doing another variation of southern petulance and exasperation. She’d have been better if guided by a real movie director. Having staged Williams plays previously and not to overwhelming success, Jose Quintero, who hadn’t made a movie before, ended up traffic-managing a garish soundstage-designed La Dolce Vita melodrama about the supposedly horrorish inevitability of the aged buying sex. His lack of filmic ease explains why Warren Beatty (amusingly bad in what likely is a Natalie Wood-coached accent), Lotte Lenya (as a sinister pimp), Coral Browne and the more-irritating-than-usual Jill St. John are devices that shatter subtly. When Beatty stands with hip cantilevered, dressed in blue-black with a suede cardigan flung over his shoulder, he’s styrofoam Ken deserving of St. John’s plastic Barbie. If Williams’ critical faculties seemed at low ebb when he said this production was his favorite of his plays turned into film, we can’t be much surprised: he considered Leigh and Quintero his emotional and spiritual soul mates. The nuttier his pals, the more he saw himself in them. He’d later claim that Boom became his favorite play-turned-movie, perhaps the marker as to when he finally tipped over. A remake is in order: The Roman Spring of Mr. Stone. Gavin Lambert wrote the screenplay; Leigh’s wardrobe by Balmain of Paris, her hairdo during the first hour courtesy of that unaccountable June Allyson; Cleo Laine sings “Che Noia L’Amor”; assistant director: Peter Yates; interiors shot at Elstree Studios in England.

In 2003, without gender change, a remake arrived: Showtime and Helen Mirren teamed for Tennessee Williams The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. This time the 1950s period has been honored, the real Rome has been used (though interiors were shot in Dublin), and the sex and vulgar vagrancy—only suggested because of censorship considerations when making Leigh’s version—have been restored, for equal parts pruriency and faithfulness to the author. Director Robert Allan Ackerman and screenwriter Martin Sherman are so sure they’ve got Williams right that they’ve included him as a playwright named Christopher. Incorporating him into the story is basically the only major change to the text and original picture; he replaces Meg Bishop (Browne), an acid tell-it-like-it-is journalist-friend, and while Roger Allam who plays him is larger than Williams, he delivers the famously inimitable New Orleans floridity with a comparable nervous gossipy panache. During the beginning we have some adjustment problems with the look of Mirren’s Karen Stone; in those pencilled brows, outlined bags under her eyes and a nose looking elongated, she’s almost a horror show. Beyond the cruelty exposed by the characters, there’s arguably an unnecessary coldbloodedness in the way she appears older than the fifty something character. As the movie progresses, and we realize the ugly 1950s will indeed dominate in makeup and costume (and attitude), we’re only a little less discomforted by how she becomes Kathy Baker as Flora Robson. (Robson’s ghost shows up in Elizabeth I too.) But as actress in this and in Prime Suspect, Elizabeth I and The Queen, Mirren’s on a roll. How does she do it? Where in that glorious whirl of her creativity does she come up with those perfect-for-the-character orgasmic sounds when she’s getting plowed in her Cadillac convertible? Her fearlessness to go all the way knocks us out. As Paolo, Olivier Martinez is going to be judged against Warren Beatty but the latter will lose. French by birth, Martinez has the gift of the boy whore; he’s at once beautiful and phony and thus irresistible. He’s at least as appetizing in black, with jacket slung over the shoulder, as his predecessor yet a much more persuasive fit as a flashing-in-a-bedsheet trick; we all know why Mirren goes for seconds (and thirds). He’s also good at Paolo’s story-stunts as transitions, and when he’s rubbing the makeup off a sleeping Mirren, the audience repulses as much as he does. As the young vagrant, Rodrigo Santoro has liquefied eyes and a resemblance to Keanu Reeves, and he’s got a desperately erotic touch when he taps on Mirren’s window and her eyes follow his hand moving into his hairy crotch. Anne Bancroft does—in Christopher’s words—the Cuntessa. Suffering from uterine cancer while making the movie, and dying shortly after completion, she had a tough time getting through—she’s in and out of her concocted accent, at times she appears to be loitering, and in hat and wig she looks less the American-hating pimptress than a stagey Robin Strasser. (Seeing her in the Cuntessa’s presumed natural graying hair, we can’t figure out how she flattens it enough to get her thin wig over it.) But when fired up or slamming a groin, she’s effective and fun. The decision to keep Mrs. Stone as a period piece is smart because no one believes anymore Williams’ very depressing message that we’re all washed up by the time we hit the mid-century mark and all that’s left is countless sexual indiscretions until death arrives. Did he really believe all that, or did he use the downerism as somewhat disguised propaganda? Tilting toward the latter, he made sure there’s an ample supply of atropa belladonna to soothe Karen’s self-imposed death sentence. Williams was in his late thirties when he started writing the story in Rome while “drifting” with the street urchin(s), during which he didn’t have any fears of getting his throat slashed. He wrote in Memoirs that “the Italians are not much inclined toward thievery or violence...it goes rather against their nature.” He doesn’t allow Karen Stone the chance to do what he did: wash up the beggar as part of a tourist Marshall plan before devouring him.

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com

Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER Updated 6/2007 All Rights Reserved.