It may not be good, but it’s great.
It’s great in that it’s gutsy way that no-holds-barred downers like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY are gutsy. It’s one of those films where you think “what happened? why didn’t anyone stop this?” Suits would know there’s no money to be made in something so nihlistic and hopeless. Recall if you will the happy ending switch to his CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, for example.
Then there is the uncomfortable neediness and sexuality in the story itself. Vivien Leigh is a recently widowed Broadway star who just backed out of playing Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT, realizing she is too damn old to play a gamin. She moves to Rome and starts to drift… drift. A scheming deposed Russian countess-cum-madame drops in, as if to welcome Leigh to the neighborhood, but really to introduce young stud Warren Beatty. The scene plays out as uncomfortable as one could possibly imagine. The idea here is to get Viv to go out with this young man, and maybe shower him with kisses and then buy him jewelry (which the countess then pawns and they split the take). In short, without anything but small talk spoken, they are pitching a perfect and beauitiful business arrangement, sad only if you cling to your petty patriarchally-instilled mores. But our faded ingenue is still too vain and deluded to realize the faustian bargain implied by Beatty’s apparently stringless interest in her. She just assumes she’s still beautiful and he’s the one who should pay for dinner.
Warren Beatty’s limits as an actor suit the role perfectly; he pretends to act like a guy pretending to act. The layers of emptiness run so deep you feel his despair at his own flawlessness. In other words, he’s a great gigolo, but not a very good business man or manipulator (this is his first job). Is Leigh ever going to wise up and just pay the man already? Will he ever get the guts to ask? Meanwhile, some rent boy by the fountain below her balcony keeps watching her… watching and waiting… everything is subtle and implied, but the thoroughly American Leigh refuses to read the writing on the wall.
Beatty’s “madame,” is played by Lotte Lenya–that dog-faced demoness of Weimar era cabaret and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (and SEMI-TOUGH)–and she alone seems to be “operating on the realistic level” as far as taking her pleasures where she may instead of clinging to delusions of youth like the old rich ladies she provides young Italian men for. There’s some great scenes of her drunkenly cavorting through bohemian night clubs with her debauched pack of “waxworks,” (to borrow SUNSET BOULEVARD’s rent boy Joe Gillis’ phrase) the type of creepy but very funny old hedonists you would later see cooing over ROSEMARY’S BABY. One of them is the wondrously bitchy Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). The links to horror movies of the past are no mistake; STONE is a horror movie dressed up in gloss and glamour, a knife in a pretty flower sheathe.
Director Jose Quintero is perhaps too clever for his own good with all the soap and Sirkian gloss. It’s intended to be so sweet it becomes poisonous, ala the plants in Sebastian’s garden in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER but it passes so well for the “real” thing that I can see audiences not getting it. As per the style of the time, there’s lots of travelogue sunny Rome streets and market footage (cinemascope beating out the television for sheer spectacle, etc.) which contrasts brilliantly with the debauched sadness going on in the shade and Bava gel-lit beatnik caverns. I can see audiences recoiling from this combination, the worst of both worlds leading them to expect justifying froth rather than being forced to smell the realization glove: if the genders and ages were reversed it would all be okay, and America is very hypocritical, senior. If their ages were reversed, Leigh would marry old Warren and then divorce him and get it ALL! She’d be a bitch, but respected. Beatty merely wrangling a rolex from some old trick who got more money than God, that’s considered vile, shameful!
The extras on the DVD let you know the original book Williams wrote was his most naked attempt to depict his anguish over growing older and having to face death… there’s also a subtextual sense of Williams’ shame at feeling ashamed of being gay. He knows he should know better than to buy into the social conditioning that condemns his lifestyle, but these are deeply planted roots, hopelessly entangled with the pernicious superego. You can see why he would be so afraid when you encounter snickering from people who have learned to “read” gay men into clothes horse women via SEX IN THE CITY. But gay, straight or what have you, we all face this same sad fate if we were ever glamorous, young, pretty, in love, etc. and are aware of death approaching, a small black cloud as yet on our wide landscape, but in view. It’s in view and no amount of snickering or renting of boys will stave it off!
P.S. Special thanks to the quintessential British review site VIDEO BEAVER for their excellent screenshots.