Taking on the role of Karen Stone was an act of considerable courage by Vivien Leigh; there were too many unfortunate parallels where life imitated art. Mrs. Stone loses her husband of twenty years to a fatal heart attack, Ms. Leigh was divorced from her husband of twenty years Sir Laurence Olivier shortly before she began filming, which was his choice not hers. Both were starting new lives alone, were approximately the same age in the late forties, and were worried about aging and losing their beauty, and as both were actresses, the scarcity of roles that were age appropriate. That is where the resemblance ends however; Mrs. Stone inevitably gives in to despair, but not so Vivien Leigh who would gallantly challenge and valiantly fight the cruel fates of manic depression, aging and tuberculosis that would ultimately cause her untimely death at age fifty-three.
Based on a Tennessee Williams novella, "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" is the story of a renowned middle-aged American actress Karen Stone (Leigh), who flees to Rome with her wealthy invalid husband (John Phillips) after a disastrous try as Shakespeare's young heroine Rosalind in "As You Like It". En route, Mr. Stone succumbs to heart failure. Bereft of both her husband and her career, Mrs. Stone decides to take an apartment and remain in Rome indefinitely. At loose ends, she is increasingly aware she's beginning to "drift" without any direction, which alarms her. This plus her status as a vulnerable rich widow, makes her prey for an unsavory Contessa (Lotte Lenya) who is nothing more than a female pimp that dangles vain pretty boy Paulo DiLeo (Warren Beatty) in Mrs. Stone's path. At first resistant, Mrs. Stone's loneliness and susceptibility lead her to be drawn into their web, despite warnings from her astute, caring best friend Meg Bishop (Coral Browne).
The biggest flaw in this movie is the casting of Vivien Leigh. Aged forty-seven when filming, Ms. Leigh is still so breathtaking beautiful and magnetic that there is no way she would ever need the services of a gigolo. Except for Audrey Hepburn no actress moved with such poise and grace in every movement, she is the embodiment of Lord Bryon's poem "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night." Exquisitely gowned by her favorite Parisian courtier, the celebrated Pierre Balmain, immaculately coifed and made up, impeccably well bred and intelligent, she is any man's dream mature woman, you'd never do better! With the added inducements of wealth and celebrity, men of all ages would be beating a path to her door!
Now, just to contradict myself, the film's biggest asset is Vivien Leigh! She is such a consummate actress that she makes you believe that despite all the above advantages, Mrs. Stone is possessed by the twin demons of loneliness and insecurity. These linked to the double shock of losing both her husband and career almost simultaneously cause her to act irrationally and recklessly. In repose her face is eloquent in expressing emotion, the eyes haunted with a private grief. She makes the viewer empathize and care for her, and this is what makes the film ultimately succeed.
This was Warren Beatty's second film and not much of a stretch for him playing a spoiled, petulant, indolent young man who will always love his own reflection in the mirror more than any woman. However, as written Paulo has about the depth of a birdbath, so there's not much he can do with the role. With her wide jack o' lantern grin, and flaming hennaed hair, Lotte Lenya is chillingly corrupt and decadent as the barracuda of a Contessa who makes her living off a stable of young boys parceled out to a moneyed clientele of both sexes. She deservedly received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Coral Browne as Meg Bishop, Karen's true best friend is wonderful, cultivated, elegant and statuesque, full of forthright common sense trying to save Karen from her darker instincts. Another parallel, Ms. Leigh and Ms. Browne were very close friends in real life, Ms. Browne allegedly one of the friends that visited Ms. Leigh the day she died. The cast is rounded out by two smaller but key roles, Jill St. John as the bubble headed, nubile American starlet Barbara Bingham and Jeremy Spenser as a dark, sinister homeless young man who is stalking the hapless Mrs. Stone. Also look for in cameos both quite young, Cleo Laine as a singer in a nightclub, and Jean Marsh of "Upstairs, Downstairs" fame as one of Paolo's conquests.
Acclaimed New York theatre director Jose Quintero directed this his one and only film; as an initial effort, he does quite well. The screenplay is expertly adapted by Gavin Lambert and provides several memorable scenes for the Misses Leigh, Lenya and Browne. Kudos to production designer Roger Furse, the movie was filmed in London but you'd never know it by his sets, he evokes a Rome that is not the sunlit, joyous "Eternal City" of say "Roman Holiday", but one that is ominous and disquieting with a sense of inner decay. Mrs. Stone's sumptuously appointed rooftop apartment perched in lofty splendor above the cascade of the Spanish Steps reflects the lady's breeding and good taste, but ultimately is not a safe haven for her.
The extras in the DVD are the original theatrical trailer and a short featurette entitled "Mrs. Stone: Looking for Love in All the Dark Corners" that is moderately interesting and features Jill St. John and Tennessee Williams biographer Donald Spoto.
Supposedly this was Tennessee Williams favorite film adaption of his works; he considered it almost a poem, and Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Stone one of his truest film heroines. Since his other memorable film heroines included Blanche Du Bois, Maggie the Cat, Catharine Holly and Alexandra del Lago, this is high praise indeed.
Although Ms. Leigh illuminates Mrs. Stone with her artistry, it's regrettable that she played so many ill-fated or unhappy characters in her few film appearances. On the stage she was a sparkling comedienne as in "The Skin of Our Teeth", "The School for Scandal", and "Look After Lulu". Another film released the same year as "Roman Spring..." was a charming romantic comedy called "The Pleasure of His Company" where Lilli Palmer played an enchanting, witty, sophisticated mature woman who more than holds her own with former husband Fred Astaire and current husband Gary Merrill to a happy conclusion. This would have been a welcome change of pace and Vivien Leigh's star would have shone that much brighter if she could have played this role in addition to poor Mrs. Stone.