Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, The – US, 1961
Doubt is an actor’s enemy. It’s akin to a parasite crawling under your skin and becoming an obsession, an itch that must be scratched, despite the fact that doing so only makes it itch more. Doubt can take over an actor’s thoughts, making him wonder if he’s lost it, if he ever had it in the first place, and what he’ll do if this is truly the twilight of his professional career. It is ideas like these that have begun to consume Mrs. Karen Stone, the forty-five-year-old star of a recently-opened production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. As the film begins, it is intermission, and the audience is already voicing their displeasure. The camera cuts backstage to a nervous Mrs. Stone, whose mid-performance jitters speak volumes. She knows that there is a degree of truth in the scathing words being spoken out in the lobby. Later she calls her husband and tells him she wants to close the show. Without a moment’s hesitation, he suggests that they use his poor health as an excuse, and who knows? Perhaps this was the cause all along.
The two of them head off to Europe for what is meant to be a relaxing vacation, one meant to refresh and refocus Mrs. Stone. It begins, however, with Mr. Stone’s sudden death in mid-flight, the result of a massive heart attack, and the loss causes Mrs Stone to seek self-imposed seclusion in that wonderful place where a princess fell in love with a commoner eight years earlier in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. In fact, I half expected The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone to eventually become a hybrid of that film and films like How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It doesn’t, however. It would be more truthful to call The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone the anti-Roman Holiday, for nothing the film shows us about Rome would inspire any of the romantic notions that Wyler’s film caused. Quite the opposite, actually.
As depicted in Jose Quintera’s film, Rome is a city of danger, especially for widowed foreign women with money. Young men lounge around on the street, looking for their next target, and young women hang out of street corners, waiting for the next wealthy customer to walk by. It is a city in which a man in the midst of a con can sit and boast of the ruse he is pulling off, and instead of shaking his head in disgust, his barber will shake his head in envy. Part of this is explained in the film’s opening scene, one of film’s weaker moments, for instead of actually showing the vice and sin taking place, the film uses a rather poor dramatic device, a know-it-all narrator who tells the audience how evil Rome is while showing them images of young men either standing around or sleeping on the pavement. It’s not souvenir-photo material, but it is hardly menacing. The narrator is abandoned so quickly that one wonders why he was included at all.
Mrs. Stone is described as being extremely well off and that makes her the target of the Contessa (Lotte Lenya), who makes a living matching wealthy women up with young hustlers. Her standard agreement: They split the spoils 50-50. The Contessa reasons that all Mrs. Stone needs is to be “brought back to life.” And to make this happen sooner than it might normally, she arranges an ostensibly incidental meeting between herself, Mrs. Stone, and a young playboy by the name of Paolo di Leo (Warren Beatty).
What is fascinating about The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is the way that Paulo remains a bit of an enigma, for even as we are given plenty of reason to distrust him, there is a part of us that wants to remain open to the idea that Paulo is what Mrs. Stone wants him to be, or - dare I say - needs him to be. Her husband was twenty years her senior, and there is little in the film to suggest that their marriage had been about love. In one scene, Mrs. Stone’s “dear” friend Meg tells her that it had always seemed to her that Mrs. Stone married “to avoid love.” Mr. and Mrs. Stone never had children, as that would likely have gotten in the way of their careers, and it is not hard to imagine that their relationship lacked the passion and feelings that Mrs. Stone acted out on stage. I would go so far as to say that there is a point in the film at which Mrs. Stone is well aware of the con being perpetrated on her and chooses to ignore it because she needs something from Paulo. Some viewers may interpret this as a need for love and companionship, and perhaps this is what it ends up being, but it seemed to me that Mrs. Stone is after something else. Could it be sex?
One of the things that makes the film work is the way it builds up two versions of events simultaneously. In the first version, there is a cold, calculated con under way, and all we can do is watch as Mrs. Stone slowly succumbs to it. In the second version, what started out as a con may be blossoming into something else right before our eyes. By the end of the film, though, only one interpretation is truly possible. The fun, if you can call it that, is in watching it revealed itself. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is slow and edgy, yet it was certainly a film ahead of its time. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars