LIZ SMITH: Vivien Leigh’s “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone”
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Reading between the lines
“When the time comes when nobody desires me … for myself … I’d rather not be desired at all.”
“YOU see, Paulo, I’m not like Mrs. Coogan. I don’t leave my diamonds in the soap dish. And when the time comes when I’m no longer desired for myself, I’d rather not be desired … at all.”
That is Vivien Leigh, explaining herself to gigolo Warren Beatty in the imperfect but nonetheless mesmerizing 1961 screen version of Tennessee Williams’ novella, “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.”
THERE is a good deal wrong with the movie — the direction of Jose Quintero, who knew the theater but not films … young Warren’s giggle-inducing male escort, all bronzed up and sporting an execrable Italian accent. There is Lotte Lenya as Italy’s — perhaps the world’s — least palatable “female pimp” (as Leigh’s Karen Stone at last describes her). Lenya is fascinating and gobbles up every scene, but subtlety escapes this actress. Her Contessa is so villainous one expects her head to explode from sheer nastiness. Or to employ a shoe with a dagger, as she did as Rosa Klebb in “From Russia With Love.”
Lotte Lenya as the “female pimp.”
But when I came across “Roman Spring” the other afternoon on Turner Classic Movies” I stayed to the (very) bitter end, because of Vivien Leigh. (Also the great Coral Browne, who pops in and out trying to talk some sense into Mrs. Stone.)
As she did in her almost all the latter films of her brief movie career, Leigh floats through “Roman Spring” exuding a potent air of inevitable, but exquisitely maintained tragedy.
Vivien as 50-year-old actress Karen Stone (she was 47 in real life).
The physically brave — if emotionally selfish and manipulative — Scarlett O’ Hara of “Gone With the Wind” is not to be seen in her Emma Hamilton, Anna Karenina, her Myra in “Waterloo Bridge.” And certainly not in the final quartet of movies that seemed to echo her own life — a frightened, aging woman, still beautiful but desperate: “The Deep Blue Sea” … ”A Streetcar Named Desire” … ”The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” and “Ship of Fools.” (Leigh is strong and canny in 1945’s underrated “Caesar and “Cleopatra.”)
In “Roman Spring,” as a wealthy, widowed retired actress, Leigh speaks hauntingly of “drifting” through her new life in Italy, surrounded by parvenus and parasites. She indeed drifts, lovely and proud, resisting Warren’s oily overtures at first. She utters lines — as she did in “Streetcar” and “Ship of Fools” — that seem to speak directly to aspects of her own life, her own concerns as an older woman, without a man. But these fictional women have known one love; one that either fulfilled all, or represented concession/failure of some sort. (Leigh never truly recovered from the end of her marriage to Laurence Olivier.)
Leigh is beautiful and wonderful to look at and listen to, with her dry voice, conveying disappointment, at odds with the famously turned up, impish smile, that so transforms her face. In fact, for all of Mrs. Stone’s gloomy negativism (“three or four years more is all I need. After that, a cut throat will be a blessing”) she is still so attractive one might even say Warren Beatty should have been paying her!
It’s a less harsh version of the character she would play in “Ship of Fools.” (a film that contains two brilliant female performances — Leigh and Simone Signoret.) But at least in that one, she has the satisfaction of beating the hell out of Lee Marvin with her high heel.
My favorite scene in “Roman Spring” comes midway through. A frustrated Lotte Lenya, not getting a cut from her product, confronts Leigh, to warn her off Beatty (“a little marchetta — a boy who has no job, no money, but lives very well.”) Leigh shrugs this obvious information off, and as they move down a buffet table, she is even less concerned when Lotte comforts her with the news that Warren doesn’t have “light fingers.” Her jewelry and property are safe.
“I don’t think it would matter so much if he did,” Mrs. Stone tells an astonished Contessa. “Beautiful people make their own laws.”
“Did you?” the Contessa asks.
“In a way,” responds Mrs. Stone, delicately picking at her plate, “When I was very beautiful.”
This line strikes like a knife. Mrs. Stone, and the actress Vivien Leigh were still very beautiful. But this is something Leigh seemed compelled to convey — to say it first, to play it out, to put her fears on the line, for all those who knew of her emotional problems and could read between the lines.
Vivien Leigh died only a few years later. One wonders how long she would have traveled with this character, this aspect of herself. Or would she have eventually felt freer to explore other more positive aspects of her maturity, as she had done onstage? (She was a mischievous delight in comedy.)
And now I want to watch “That Hamilton Woman” and thrill to the magnificent scene in which Emma Hamilton dashes around the huge balcony of a Naples palace, to throw herself into the arms of Laurence Olivier, Lord Nelson. She is doomed already to unhappiness, but welcoming disaster as the inevitable outcome of giving all for love.
ENDQUOTE: This, from Prince Harry, via Newsweek.
“For the greater good of the people … Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.”
Wow. This speaks quite directly to the not-fun life of Britain’s royals. Of course they are wealthy and privileged, but it is an insular life forever bound by “duty.” You are born into it and cannot escape. If there is change — and Harry’s statement certainly indicates that! — it is the still-rippling effect of his mother, the late Princess Diana. Her tactics were at times a bit mad and desperate, but in her sons, William and Harry, the best of what she wanted, continues to bloom and mature.
Julian Parker/UK Press via Getty Images