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 decadence, that his excessive promiscuity was a means to stop his “drifting.” 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, because he’d go on to even more dangerous drift later. Before the movie version starring Vivien Leigh, Vittorio De Sica wanted to film it with Greta Garbo. Intriguing, but Leigh’s hardly a poor second choice. With her class and seasoned articulation, in her last major starring role (she was a guest victim in Ship of Fools), she gives justice to Williams and she has her moments. It’s also a relief not to see her ready for the straitjacket, or doing a variation of southern petulance and exasperation. Having directed plays by Williams previously and not to overwhelming success, Jose Quintero, who hadn’t made a movie before, ended up with a mutedly garish soundstage-designed American La Dolce Vita melodrama about the supposedly horrorish inevitability of the aged buying sex. And Quintero’s lack of filmic ease explains why Warren Beatty (amusingly bad in what has been rumored to be a Natalie Wood-coached accent), Lotte Lenya (as a sinister pimp), Coral Browne and the more-irritating-than-usual Jill St. John are used as overly obvious plot devices. (When Beatty enters Leigh’s bedroom and stands with hip cantilevered, dressed in blue-black with a suede cardigan flung over his shoulder, he’s perilously close to plastic icon.) If Williams’ critical faculties seem at low ebb when he said this movie and not A Streetcar Named Desire 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. 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 vagrant vulgarity that could only be suggested because of censorship considerations when making Leigh’s version have been restored, not for pruriency but for a 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; with those pencilled brows, outlined bags under her eyes and a nose looking elongated, she’s almost a horror. 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, Mirren is right now—in this, in “Prime Suspect,” in “Elizabeth I,” in The Queen—without peer. 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? Is she wi-fied to the Goddess of acting? 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 but irresistible. He’s as appetizing in black, with jacket slung over the shoulder, as his predecessor but a more persuasive fit as a flashing-in-a-bedsheet trick and we 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 moment 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. (When we see her in the Cuntessa’s presumed natural graying hair, we have to wonder 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 classy production’s wisest decision is to keep Mrs. Stone as a period piece 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 the drift of countless sexual indiscretions. (No wonder there’s an ample supply of atropa belladonna to soothe Karen’s sentence.) Williams was in his late thirties when he wrote the story, in Rome, and was engaged in a minor tryst with a vagrant. What matters about this is that the author not only didn’t have any fears of getting his throat slashed—he even wrote in his Memoirs that at the time “the Italians are not much inclined toward thievery or violence, it seems to me it goes rather against their nature”—he did what Karen Stone most likely would do: wash up the beggar before devouring him.

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