Camp David

CAMP DAVID MARCH 2012: THE TENNESSEE STUD

By • Mar 12th, 2012 •

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The other evening I sat down to examine the 2003 remake of Tennessee Williams’ THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE. The first version starred Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty under the direction of the gifted Jose Quintero. This would be the only film he would ever direct and it remains the definitive version. The reboot with Helen Mirren is far more graphic in depicting the sexual nature of Mrs. Stone’s addiction to gigolos like Paolo (played here by Oliver Martinez, who registers the good looks and sexual prowess in a way Warren Beatty was not allowed to do in 1962). The problem with the remake is while it allows us to observe the nature of Karen Stone’s desire for the firm flesh of a younger man we are allowed no sympathy for the plight of all displaced homeless boys that wander the Spanish steps of either period of time. The dialogue that would serve this purpose is given to the Contessa, played here by an arch and funny Anne Bancroft, who plays her role with gusto and a very healthy appetite. The first version gave us an equally reptilian Contessa, this time interpreted by Lotte Lenya. Both actresses channel their roles as thinly veiled pimps with all the worldly contempt Europeans had for the post-war Americans like Karen Stone who drifted into Rome hoping for romance and happiness, only to lead themselves full throttle into the abyss.

Regardless as to which version you prefer the reality of, what we are really watching is perhaps more apparent in light of the countless books and articles detailing the repressed sexuality Williams experienced firsthand being an openly-gay man in the mid-20th century, where he was compelled to disguise his true self in the female characters of his plays. Luchino Visconti once remarked while directing a roman version of STREETCAR, “Tennessee, you are Blanche.” It was obvious almost from the beginning the situations he created for these characters, always discovering their attraction for rough trade whether it be Paolo the rent boy or Chance Wayne the drifter or even Stanley the brute. These kinds of men are all fantasy archetypes in a gay wet dream. The sexual power-play is a parlor game these once-proud women resort to in order to get what they think they need or want from a man. These only make sense if you realize it is a gay man’s fantasy being acted out on the world’s stage for the public to devour while Tennessee cackled away in Key West penning his next fever dream.

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE gives us yet another perfect gay fantasy: the older man having shared the better younger half of his life with a soul-mate is now adrift in a decadent city with piles of money and nothing but time on his/her hands. It is not long before he/she is introduced to a procurer of young men for the sole purpose of servicing these lonely millionaires. The remake gives us a rather camp version of Williams himself as the playwright “Christopher” with an Italian rent boy of his own in-tow. It is this character that takes up where Coral Browne left off in the first version, acting as a concerned yet helpless onlooker to Karen Stone’s descent into the arms of one of Tennessee’s favorite devices, “the angel of death.” In THE ROMAN SPRING it is the homeless street hustler that remains outside her villa waiting for her to give in to his final embrace.

The reviews for both versions of THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE seemed to agree that this was not the best of Tennessee’s filmed adaptations from his work. This was his only novella and as such it is a fascinating excursion into yet another dimension of his sexual anxiety as interpreted by actresses like Vivien Leigh in the first film and Helen Mirren in the second. What is brought front and center in this reboot is the on-camera coupling of Mrs. Stone with her lusty gigolo pumping away in the front seat of cars or pounding her senseless against a wall of her villa (to have seen this play out in the first film would have been amazing). One thing I disagree with in all the negative remarks about the “purple prose” or the narration, which does inspire a kind of camp sensibility, is the compelling way in which Williams presents his case for the psychology of aging – not just for older women of means but for most gay men turning the corner of 55. It is interesting that in both films Paolo is played by actors who are nowhere near being Italian. Warren Beatty was of course American and in the reboot Oliver Martinez is French. The legend has it that Beatty flew to Puerto Rico to convince Williams in person that he was the only actor to play the role of Paolo since another actor had been suggested. Williams later wrote that “an actor who shall not be named” followed him back to his hotel and offered himself to the aging playwright in exchange for the role. To his credit Williams said “it was not necessary.”

There is much discussion in the narration for the “drifting” that Karen Stone seems to be doing much too much of. One only has to examine the memoirs of the playwright to see that this was a constant situation in his time living in Rome both before and after the “stoned age” he found himself in when most of the literary world had all but written him off as a has-been. The atmosphere of Rome in both versions is of course a fantasy all its own…

In both films we see glimpses of the Rome Hollywood has been so fond of showing us in such films as TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN or, say, ROME ADVENTURE, however it never remotely dominates either film since we are far more concerned with Mrs. Stone’s retreat from life itself as she remains aloof, smoking endless cigarettes on her terrace while observing the passing parade from far above the Spanish steps (which frankly sees more action than a gay bathhouse on a Saturday night). She is stalked in both versions by a homeless rent boy in shabby clothes, yet very desirable nonetheless. In the Vivien Leigh version he is handsome but no threat to Warren Beatty; however in the Helen Mirren reboot we get a smoldering male model with very full lips who, as in the novel, urinates in front her so she can check out his penis–something they spared Miss Leigh in 1962.

I feel most of the bad reviews of 1962 were focused on just how tacky it was to use Vivien Leigh’s personal descent into madness after her divorce from Laurence Oliver (and her premature death, a few years later). The character of Karen Stone is as much her story as it is Tennessee’s at that point in their lives. In his memoirs he recounts how Vivien threw a much-needed party for his lover Frank Menlo at a point in time when he needed to be fussed over and admired. For that reason alone Tennessee always had a place in his heart for Vivien Leigh as well as the film which he always referred to by saying, “The film is a poem.

None of that is handed down of course to the Helen Mirren production simply because as an actress as well as a person Helen Mirren was and is at the top of her game. This version received 10 Emmy nominations including one for her performance. The overt sexuality makes for compulsive viewing even though Mirren’s Karen Stone never seems to be as needy or neurotic as Vivien Leigh, who by then had a patent on that kind of performance. In Williams you cannot seem to admire beauty without desiring it as well and so we have Oliver Martinez sometimes referred to as a “marcetta” by the Contessa, which means he is by Roman standards a whore who will sleep with anybody that can afford him. Now in the first version we have a rather remarkable scene for the period in which the Contessa (played by Lotte Leyna) maintains an “office” of sorts in the foyer of her apartment which during the latter part of the film is more like a waiting room in hell where older men and even older women are kept waiting as the Contessa works her address book to the max in order to find them just the right sexual partner for what they are into. A very telling moment comes when the “baron,” a particularly sinister character, is told by the Contessa “to be more patient; what you desire takes time.” I am still wondering what this guy was into if even an old reptile like the Contessa had to search the catacombs of Rome to find this man a bedmate.

In the novel we are shown Paolo receiving his weekly shave from his barber who is described in very homoerotic prose and this is carried over to both films as well. It is the barber that is given all the gossip from Paolo about his clients and we can only surmise that the relationship goes even further than that after the shop is free of customers. Most of this would simply go over the heads of the movie-going audiences of 1962 but I noticed that much more attention was being paid in 2003. By then we not only get a far more sexual film but a campier one as well. An homage of sorts is given early on as Karen Stone and her husband attend a roman cocktail party with a lot more attention paid to the ‘cock.’ It is at this party that we first glimpse Paolo seated in such a way to recall Tadzio in DEATH IN VENICE . Only in this version Tadzio would have not only spoken to Aschenbach but given him a sliding scale of his hourly rates for whatever he wanted to do to him. I think by now we all know Lucino Visconti’s film was more than preoccupied with the homoerotic than the eternal clash of Dionysian themes with those of Apollo.

The actual Rome that Tennessee Williams lived and tried to paraphrase in his novella was perhaps a bit more Pasolini than either film version of ROMAN SPRING has ever dared to show on screen. The Helen Mirren version has a much different prologue from the original Vivian Leigh version where Mrs. Stone, with her doting husband-in-tow, attend a Roman cocktail party where we first glimpse Paolo seated very languidly between two older women. In fact the Contessa is introduced in this sequence, which takes its cue from the Visconti film of DEATH IN VENICE where he introduces Tadzio in the grand hotel in much the same manner. I can for a moment imagine the character of Tadzio re-imagined as Paolo wherein Aschenbach is given the opportunity to rent an evening with the object of his desire provided he can help out Tadzio’s cousin who needs a hundred million lire to get out of a jam.

There seems to be this recurring theme in several of Williams’ plays where women like Karen Stone are plagued with some dark unhappy encounter with a boyfriend or husband who turns out to be homosexual. It runs through CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and of course A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. There is no need for such a device in THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE because the central figure of Mrs. Stone is already coded as a stand-in for Mr. Williams. At one point the Contessa suggests that she has become a “chicken Hawk” because of her preference for young men. This has to be a cinema first for this gay slang expression which is a term widely used by hustlers in describing their johns that only go for young or underage boys. I suppose Aschenbach in Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE would be a prime contender for this title except of course the material is much too intellectualized to ever go in such a vulgar direction. I recently discovered a third version of ROMAN SPRING that was produced in 1989 entitled THE DRIFT. This very avant-garde film was directed by John Aes Nihil and most of the principal players are drag queens with the role of the Contessa performed by a quadriplegic drag queen; I think Anne Bancroft as well as Lotte Lenya would be in good company in such a production. It is interesting to compare Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson from THE GRADUATE with her bravura turn here as the Contessa since we can certainly see the “chicken hawk” in her taste in men in that counterculture classic. On the other hand Lotte Lenya, while best known as Kurt Weil’s muse, was also given a certain screen immortality as one of the best Bond villains in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Her turn as the lesbian Colonel Rosa Klebb is a classic example of the predatory dyke-on-the-make complete with a dagger concealed in her shoe.

There has been speculation as to just what function the lustful street hustler has in the novella to translate into film as an angel of death. In the first version he is given moments of real desperation, eating discarded pizza on the Spanish steps, while his main purpose is to wait his turn below the terrace of Karen Stone’s villa until she drops those keys down at his feet. In the Helen Mirren version the quite striking Rodrigo Santiro plays the part so well he rivals Martinez in both sex appeal as well as being beautiful. Santiro has gone on from this film to play the Persian King Xerxes in Frank Miller’s homoerotic 300 and is well on his way to a promising career; the opposite happened to the other actor who played the same role in the 1962 version.

Williams has made his case for women like Karen Stone as well as the rest of his gallery of vain, neurotic leading ladies when he observed, ” I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person, but these seemingly fragile people are strong people, really.” This observation gives me the feeling that Karen Stone left to her own devices might well survive the night with her street hustler. Whether or not she can show him off to Roman society is another story, but perhaps she will not really care anyway now that she can fully give vent to her long-suppressed desires for sex.

One scene in the Vivien Leigh version that I have always found bizarre is the casting of a small role at the last party Mrs. Stone allows in her apartment before Paolo deserts her for the younger movie star (played in a rather vapid manner by newcomer Jill St. John). Ernest Thesiger, the unforgettable Dr. Septimus Pretorius in James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, turns up as one of the Contessa’s clients, who seems to be slumming as he tries to chat up Ms. St. John. I can’t imagine his presence here is an accident as Jose Quintero was an admirer of James Whale and perhaps felt Thesiger could represent yet another gay connection to a film already top-heavy in symbolism and double-entendre.

When I was still going to San Francisco State I had the pleasure of meeting Tennessee Williams at the very time we were doing his CAMINO REAL as the fall play. I was playing the Baron De Charlis, a small but very showy moment in the play, so imagine what a chance encounter this would be to see the great man standing in–of all places– the lobby of the Gaylord Hotel. It seems we were both visiting someone who was living there at the time. He was a bit tipsy as it was very late in the evening. I recognized him at once and, being me, had no problem in approaching him. Tennessee Williams in person was exactly what you would expect him to be: grand, foolish and possessed of a courtly charm that does not exist in today’s period. I told him we were doing his play at State to which he replied, “Well, good luck with that, honey. I just never attend college productions. It is a rule if that is what you are about to suggest.” Of course I would have killed to get him to attend our play, however I had another idea. I told him I was heading over to Cabaret, a gay disco at the corner of Broadway, to see Sylvester perform as Ethel Waters. He looked at me for the longest time before speaking and then said, “I have seen many interpretations of Miss Waters over the years but never one by a cartoon.” I quickly explained who Sylvester was and then made my escape as it was clear that Mr. Williams was in need of some air. I never saw him again but I will always remember what a charming and rather sad man he was standing in that seedy hotel lobby pondering Ether Waters being interpreted by a cartoon.

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3 Responses »

  1. Another outstanding obvservation from the Camp that is David! I love both versions and after our conversation today and reading this article, I will never again see a Tennessee heroine in quite the same way.

    I will find the time this week to revist both versions. Keep up the good work. Keep it gold Baby!

  2. Love and admiration of beauty in the asexual form does not in any way make this old man nor does ‘llatent phaedophiles’ exist. In his last days the normal supresed desire to have a family to give, love maybe reproduce surface in the form of a fetish… Harmless, misunderstood as it where. Great story!

  3. Hi Big Dave,

    Another great article, but imagine my disappointment when I saw the header THE TENNESSEE STUD and my name, along with myself was nowhere to be found :).

    Keep up the great work, Big Guy!

    Bryan Layne

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