Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) — Warren Beatty before he was (and nearly wasn't)

Today is Warren Beatty's 73rd birthday.

Seriously? 73? Man, I hope I look that good when I'm 40. Oh, wait.... Damn.

I could, yeah, go on about how much I love watching him glide with well-lubed cocksure ease through, say, Bonnie and Clyde or McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Shampoo. Easy. Or discourse on the merits, or otherwise, of Reds, Bugsy, or even Ishtar.

Instead, I'm thinking of one of Beatty's first gigs on the big screen, nearly fifty years ago, when he was young and hungry in 1961, six years before Bonnie and Clyde boosted his status and hirability up to his own orbital platform. At the end of December '61, just two months after this 24-year-old caught some well-earned attention in Splendor in the Grass, it was a now nearly forgotten film, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, that just about squashed his career like a bug caught running toward a wedding cake.

Inevitably and fortunately, he stuck with it and spent the following decades making movies that easily wipe this one from our frontal lobes. Good thing, too, as otherwise we'd have to use a spork.

Vivien Leigh plays the title's rich, lonely widow, who loses herself to dissolute "drifting" in Rome. Beatty is her callow lover, a handsome Italian gigolo. Leigh was 48, her career ending; Beatty was half that and just starting. And look, that's Lotte Lenya as the cynical pimp renting Italian studs to rich widows. Lenya picked up an Academy Award nomination for the role, but we remember her now thanks to Bertolt Brecht and her pop-cult apex as Bond villain Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love ('63).

Sounds like a fine combo platter, doesn't it? Well, in this case those ingredients got slapped together into a triple-decker crap sandwich.

The fat finger of blame first lands, plunk, right on the screenplay. It's credited mostly to Gavin Lambert, who in '65 adapted his own novel, Inside Daisy Clover, for Natalie Wood. Roman Spring's script delivers a far more golden pedigree, seeing as how it's adapted from Tennessee Williams' 1950 novella.

Yet it's such an excruciating bit of pulp, trite and bleary and interminable, clotted with dialogue that might read well in the dog-eared, yellowed paperback but just plops leaden onscreen. The prose is as purple as an eggplant, and the tone so overripe that the film often feels like a kitschy parody of Williams' florid excesses, or a worst-parts mashup of Williams and D.H. Lawrence. Starting with the thuddingly expository voice-over narration — Leigh's fading Broadway diva is "drifting, if not drowning, in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapors" — what wants to be mature, sensual romance-novel boilerplate becomes instead a plodding exercise in intriguingly cast camp.

None of it is helped by wallowing in that charming puritanical leitmotif, sex = death. 

When the film gets talked about at all, which is hardly ever, the conversation tends to pin down whether we're seeing Leigh's own personal crises shaping and shading her tragically unhappy Karen Stone. Leigh's recently crumbled marriage to Laurence Olivier, and her history of debilitating depression coupled with a fear of failure, all appear to be there onscreen. Like Leigh, Karen is fiftyish yet still striking, a formerly revered actress obsessed by negative reviews in a young woman's profession, and is reacting to a marriage that has just come to a miserable stop. In Mrs. Stone's case, she seeks escape in Rome after her ailing husband, the inconsiderate lout, dies next to her on the plane while en route.

While seeking "light in the dark corners" of her life, she falls prey to Paolo (Beatty), who belongs to a stable managed by a vulturous Russian contessa in a crimson boudoir (Lenya, stealing her scenes by ladling up the Williams-speak like epigrammatic goulash). Lenya's madame and Beatty's gigolo have this arrangement, see: he uses his fluids and vapors to get the drifting, if not drowning rich American lady to lavish him with gifts of jewelry and trinkets. Then Paolo and his boss (who really would be more interesting with switchblade-daggers in her shoes) pawn the goods for cold, hard cash.

At first wary, and despite warnings from an old friend (Coral Browne), Karen ultimately embraces determined Paolo's appeal, and the pair become lovers. From there it's all hell and handbaskets, jealousy and neuroses, especially after a young American actress/twinkie (Jill St. John, just 20) also catches Paolo's opportunistic eye.

Leigh's rote performance wavers between on-the-money naturalness and a mannered archness that frequently puts quotation marks around her acting. Devoted Leigh fans tend to praise her "raw" or "brave" work here. While she is Vivien Leigh, which counts for something, that's just sentimentalizing her autopilot presence because of what she was experiencing in real life. (I guess I shouldn't be surprised — though I am — that there are Facebook fan pages for the film and "Karen Stone ∆ Vivien Liegh.")

More interesting is Warren Beatty. Not because he's better than Leigh, or even noticeably good. (His uncertain Italian accent may be the movie's only memorable element.) It's that today we can't help but watch Paolo through the lens of where Beatty would go with Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, and his own "gigolo" image. The scenes that Leigh and Beatty share are at least interesting in that regard.

During her scenes with them, Jill St. John is so insubstantial she hardly registers in the frame. In this DVD's featurette about the production, we learn that Leigh never spoke to St. John at all during filming.

The better behind-the-scenes story, though, involves Beatty (of course it does). The young actor was so hungry for an image-defying role that he borrowed money to visit Williams in Puerto Rico, bought a bottle of "man tan" and an Italian phrasebook, and ingratiated himself directly to the venerable author for the part, which had been putatively given to another actor. (According to IMDb.com, that may have been Terence Stamp or Oliver Reed.)

Beatty shouldn't have bothered. When the film opened, its overwhelmingly negative reviews — "an elaborately repulsive little picture," said Cue magazine, "a painful assault on love ... dialogue of suffocating archness," stabbed The New Yorker — were such a blow to Beatty that they nearly knocked him out of acting altogether. In his review, Bosley Crowther at The New York Times pointed to Beatty as "hopelessly out of his element as a patent-leather ladies man in Rome." Variety, in their cursory review, at least gave him a mixed positive: "Although every once in a while a little Guido Panzini creeps into his Italo dialect and Marlon Brando into his posture and expression, Beatty gives a fairly convincing characterization of the young, mercenary punk-gigolo."

Beatty was to later look back at that time and say, "I couldn't go on anymore. I couldn't face making another. Why? It's a question you'd need a treatise to answer. I was insecure. I'd lost the spark." (Source: Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad.)

Roman Spring was the first feature film directed by José Quintero, a well-regarded theater director. (With Theodore Mann ten years earlier he co-founded the Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village, and had earned a reputation as the go-to director of Eugene O'Neill's dramas, notably the '56 production of The Iceman Cometh that launched Jason Robards.) Here, though, he appears incapable of injecting sufficient energy or charisma into the artifice and stagy prose, so we get a funereal lassitude almost by default.

Toward the positive, it's a well-dressed production, what with Harry Waxman's cinematography and travelogue shooting through Rome's bygone grandeur.

By the way, forget any modern enlightened ideas about Mrs. Stone's newfound widowhood and independence thrusting open a door to her own personal liberation and journey of self-discovery, sexual or otherwise. We're in 1961 here, remember, the Mad Men era except genuinely paleolithic. Flip either the genders or the ages of the two main characters and you get a profoundly different story, perhaps one assured of a "happy" ending.

Which takes us to the question of the mysterious shabby Young Man who constantly waits and watches Karen from beneath her balcony. Whether or not Quintero (or Williams) considered the Young Man to be her Death personified, Quintero sets up the final scene — broken and abandoned, she tosses her apartment keys down to him — in such a way that we're forgiven if we expect Rod Serling to stroll in from off-camera for the epilogue.

On the DVD, the 12-minute featurette, "Mrs. Stone: Looking for Love in All the Dark Corners," focuses on Leigh and Beatty in a perfunctory, tabloidy fashion, plus a few moments on some rather strained psycho-biographical parallels between Williams and his Karen Stone. Its talking-head material comes from Williams biographer Donald Spoto, Beatty biographer Suzanne Finstad, and Jill St. John. (Also included is that pompous, overwritten theatrical trailer.)

So, hey, happy birthday, Warren. I have Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo topping the stack to watch next, along with a couple cocktails and the Roman Spring disc — pardon me while I push Eject — making an ideal coaster. Cheers.

Music: Josh Nelson, "Loose End"
Near at hand:  a blue crescent moon on a string
(Parts of this post originally appeared at DVDJournal.com.)