Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom, 1961. Louis De Rochemont Associates. Screenplay by Gavin Lambert, additional writing by Jan Read, based on the novel by Tennessee Williams. Cinematography by Harry Waxman. Produced by Louis De Rochemont. Music by Richard Addinsell. Production Design by Roger K. Furse. Costume Design by Pierre Balmain, Beatrice Dawson. Film Editing by Ralph Kemplen.
Tennessee Williams called this his favourite film adaptation of any of his works, likely because it presents the central sexual relationship with very little graphic imagery but plenty of suggestive honesty. Vivien Leigh is only six years away from her premature death and does not look well, but her performance is robust and confident as Karen Stone, a popular stage actress who has a crisis of confidence and quits her latest play. She opts for a much-needed vacation with her husband, but he expires on the airplane to Rome, where she stays and, a few years later, we discover her living off her inherited millions in a swanky apartment. Among her acquaintances is the enterprising Contessa Magda, played by a marvelous Lotte Lenya, returning to the big screen for the first time since the 1931 adaptation of The Threepenny Opera; the Contessa plays pimp to a whole bevy of handsome young men surviving Italy’s post-war economy by becoming arm candy for older, wealthy American women, with many assignations made on the Spanish Steps just below Mrs. Stone’s gorgeous terrace. Mrs. Stone at first says no to the proposition of having her own boy toy, but she eventually caves when she is charmed by the Contessa’s finest specimen, Paolo (Warren Beatty, doing an accent closer to a George Hamilton spoof but fetching nonetheless).
Happy to buy him trinkets and provide him with a lavish lifestyle, Karen enters the relationship insisting that she knows the score but, the more Paolo manipulates her with a falsely aloof attitude, the more she finds herself falling genuinely in love with the young man. Eventually the sexy naughtiness of their setup loses its lustre and Mrs. Stone must make a choice about this artificial relationship: Paolo’s cruelty provides sadomasochistic pleasure, but can she go on believing that it will ever lead to something real? While the sexual mores of the setup feel somewhat dated now, the emotional reality does not, and while the 2003 remake with Helen Mirren and Olivier Martinez (with a thoroughly enjoyable Anne Bancroft in the Contessa role) is more honest with the sexual aspect of the story, this one goes deeper in exploring the personal conflicts between the characters and, in particularly, Karen’s plight to settle the fires of desire that make her feel so vulnerable. Unfortunately, that’s not a lot to base an entire film on and the dramatic arc won’t be exciting for all viewers, but as an opportunity for Leigh to once again show off her talent for effortlessly carrying an entire film on her impressive shoulders, it does quite well.
Academy Awards Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Lotte Lenya)
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Lotte Lenya)