GNXP, which is a serious website about genetics -- sometimes so serious that I can’t understand the scientific jargon -- livens things up now and then with speculation about who appeals to the desirable women, what the latter really desire, and why. One recent theory was that the most attractive men are those with masculine bone structure in their faces (jaw, cheekbone, brow) but feminine eyes and mouths: soft, damp, and yielding. To prove the reality of this, now comes “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” a remake of a Tennessee Williams tale originally filmed with Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Stone, but this time around with Helen Mirren.
The idea is that an actress at the tail end of her career, without quite the chops for the switch to character work and suddenly deprived of a “daddy” husband who did everything for her and structured her life, is left with no compass. Then she discovers the Italian gigolo, who in this remake exactly illustrates that kind of face discussed in GNXP: male but nearly childlike, with a personality to match.
Anne Bancroft is QUITE able to make the transition from glamour to character, though she has always had a tendency to comedy (consider whom she married), so her portrayal of the part previously played by Lotte Lenya has a little more chicken soup than bitterness as she manages her stable of “marchetti.” Motherliness wins out over cynicism, which might account for why she doesn’t seem to have as nice an apartment as “Karen Stone,” the actress. (Actually, with my weakness for the Bohemian, I like it a little better.)
Because for today’s audience, we always see Mirren’s police inspector persona no matter what her part, she comes across as drifting, all right, but hardly the crazed, vulnerable and exquisitely beautiful actress that was Vivien Leigh. The sparring between Mirren and Bancroft or even with the young men always seems blows and parries between equals, until Mirren’s character finally realizes what an utter fool she has made of herself. On the other hand, her relationship with the impersonator of Tennessee Williams doesn’t seem to be an alliance of oversensitive victims so much as a true friendship, which is probably much closer to the modern relationship between movie stars and creative male gays. (I begin to be aware of another kind of male gay, a corporation stalwart who manages his money and status well enough to get into Architectural Digest and has formed a relationship with a man of equal status. Sometimes they are in business together.) I don’t find this good or bad, just slightly different, successful on its own terms and possibly necessary for today’s audience.
But I got interested in the gigolos, who appeared in a sequence of increasingly handsome young men. (I had trouble telling them apart.) The one who finally scored was the one who took charge, just as the husband had. This is a woman who doesn’t like to make decisions, at least not openly. She might do it covertly (i.e. in the classic female way.) So the choice was “Paolo de Lio” played by Olivier Martinez. It appears from the comments on imdb.com that he has a fan base, but they complain that he is “too old” for this role. In fact, his manager in the film, Bancroft, also thinks he’s a fading blossom, pushing him to move on to someone not so tight with her money, pushing him hard enough for him to overplay his strategy, enlightening the MIrren character.
In the background is a nameless man, played by Rodrigo Santoro, an Argentinian actor with a long list of credits. He says nothing, merely haunts the movie star while wearing beautifully tailored rags. He is never explained. At the end, alone and drifting again but needy for sex -- now that she is awakened -- she throws down her keys to this ultimately beautiful young man. Some say he represents death, preferably by drifty drugs like belladonna. Others say he represents Karen Stone taking charge of her life -- she will now be the “daddy.” As all the best art, it’s an interpretable tale.
It’s hard to remember this is a story from the Fifties, except when looking at that barge of a convertible or in terms of Mirren’s fabulous Dior/Susie Parker/Avedon wardrobe. In fact, the waif character (which many imdb commenters described as an urchin) is very much along the lines of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy et al, with their stick bodies, huge eyes and puffy lips. So what I was reflecting about afterwards was the relationship between sex and parenthood, which sort of goes along with my wish to include oxytocin in the estrogen/testosterone debate. The “nurturing hormone” carries the impulse to feed (lactate), warm, protect, and generally mentor the young and vulnerable. This can be a function of a male parent as much as a female parent, and maybe the tendency has come back out into the open a bit with “liberation,” though male nurturing of a child is dangerously close to pedophilia.
It seems that in this tale -- with a modern spin -- the Mirren character is freed to be more “masculine” while she mothers these boys, at least partly because she’s never had children. I suppose it beats keeping a small dog in your purse. But she mothers them and then they fuck her, that’s the bargain, though Williams seems to be saying in this story that it’s okay, so long as the fucker really LOVES his mother (a motherfucker). How much of that is not really an honest opinion, but an apologia for personal behavior? It would not be an obvious question with Vivien Leigh as Karen Stone, because Leigh was clearly not even capable of parenting herself, much less anyone else.
Our cultural tradition says the man must be the strong one. Anything else is a perversion or an invention. So maybe in a society that encourages strong women, weak men can only dominate children. And if strong women have careers that prevent them from creating families, why not turn to near-child men? The more poignant moments in this movie were when the take-charge gigolo escorts the movie star to an Italian cafe that plainly IS a family. She seems to love it, but not to relate to it. What would have happened if she’d said, “Oh, I’m going to give all my money to an orphanage! Where’s an apron I can put on?” It might work -- it just wouldn’t be a Tennessee Williams story anymore.
I haven’t seen the Vivien Leigh version of this movie, but I saw her with Rip Torn on the stage in Chicago about 1960. Rip Torn was the beautiful young man which is proof that time changes everything. We went around to the stage door to watch Leigh come out. Her hair was dyed black, she was heavily made-up, her face was nearly sunk in a black fox fur collar on a long black coat. She was a figure of the kind of glamour that really IS magic in the original meaning of the word, and part of the magic was knowing that she was ephemeral, elusive, and -- in the end -- defenseless on grounds of insanity.