Certain classic films are able to overcome their artificiality and transcend towards a level of camp that’s endearing and entertaining, while other films get crushed under the weight, taking everything so seriously and eliminating the fun. Tennessee Williams called Jose Quintero’s adaptation of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone his favorite of all his works. I believe he said that about The Rose Tattoo as well, so excuse me for not taking Tennessee’s word on this because The Roman Spring is a bizarrely hollow reiteration of themes seen in the superior A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie is so derivative it even includes Vivien Leigh in a performance that’s less Blanche Dubois and more Vivien Leigh herself. And I haven’t even started on poor Warren Beatty.
Karen Stone (Leigh) is a Broadway star pushing fifty. When her husband dies en route to their Roman holiday, Karen decides to stay in the city. As Karen finds her bearings she meets a local man named Paolo (Beatty) seeking a sugar mama.
If Williams’ work could lead to critical acclaim in the 1950s, it most certainly should work in the 1960s, right? Unfortunately ten years makes a lot of difference, and while Leigh is still playing the woman running desperately back towards girlhood as she did with Blanche Dubois, her mental lapses and continued traumas turn the role of Karen Stone into autobiography. A movie star actress pushing fifty whose husband is the only reason she’s still acting? It’s like they named the character “Karen Stone” so Leigh wouldn’t sue them. This is easily the subtlest element within Roman Spring as the remainder of the film bashes the message into audiences’ heads that women are helpless creatures and anybody will turn or abandon someone they claim to love for the right price.
Much of the film’s lack of subtlety is placed at the feet of director Quintero; The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone would be the first of only two films the director ever made. There’s an amateurish quality to everything short of the lavish Roman setting. The abundant narration comes out of nowhere, and the fact it isn’t Leigh narrating her own story leaves us questioning who we’re meant to see through. If Stone isn’t capable of narrating her film, why care about her “roman spring?” Furthermore, who is this narrator? The movie tries to explain it, but it’s such an obscure character that, again, there’s little reason why Leigh isn’t narrating. Maybe she was out of town the weekend they recorded? When the narrator isn’t waxing on about Karen’s apparently horrid life – again, she’s a single woman able to live in Rome…so terrible – the rest of the characters talk as if they’re performing on-stage, harking platitudes about the trials of “human loneliness.”
We meet Karen and her husband briefly before said husband dies of opening credit-itis, and because Karen is completely adrift without a man holding her hand she stays in Rome (the perks of being a wealthy white woman…she’s not entirely helpless). Even the Rome of Quintero’s vision seems contrived, Roma Disneylandia, where if people aren’t laying on the streets, they’re engaging in alliances with wealthy people. From there Paolo is introduced and thus the movie turns laughable. Quintero hides Beatty’s face upon introduction, either as a means of leaving us wondering who’s talking in that horrible Italian accent or acclimating us to Beatty’s horrible accent. Beatty’s not entirely at fault for his problems in this movie. I mean, who actually thought Warren Beatty could pass for an Italian?
Beatty’s presence determines your overall enjoyment of this movie. The first full-length shot of him: Brylcreemed hair, muddied brown spray tan and Crest Whitestrip grin, is enough to leave you sniggering. That’s all on top of his mock-Italian accent where words like “rich” are pronounced “REECH.” Again, this isn’t all Beatty’s fault, you’d assume the director would notice none of it sounds convincing. As a character, Paolo believes he’s a duke for reasons that seem to stem from being attractive, but he spends the movie whining and screaming for attention like a toddler in a department store. Even Beatty himself can’t stand acting in this, practically sleeping with his eyes open during scenes, rending himself unconscious with a vacant expression and mouth agape. You feel bad for Leigh, ultimately, the only actor who’s actually engaged with the material. Unfortunately, the script serves to make the audience groan over Stone’s ineptitude. Where Blanche Dubois was a victim, Karen Stone is a sucker. Thankfully, the power of male attention – or other things male – revive Karen and she can live happily ever after.
It’s hard believing Gavin Lambert – screenwriter for the progressive Inside Daisy Clover – could helm such a lifeless feature. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone boasts another fine Vivien Leigh performance, but it was even better a decade before when she played the same character. I recommend seeing this purely for how awful Beatty is because you’ll appreciate the work he did later a lot more.
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