Tennessee Williams never intended to write "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" as a novella back in 1950. It only found life in print after Greta Garbo reaffirmed that she did, indeed, want to be alone.
The playwright had been collecting ideas for a prospective comeback vehicle for the legendary film star, who had retired from Hollywood in 1941 after her disastrous comedy "Two-Faced Women."
But Williams picked probably the worst story idea to lure the reclusive Garbo, then in her mid-40s, back to the screen. He wanted the Swedish sex symbol to play a widowed, aging actress whose career and life go into a tailspin when she falls for a young Italian lothario. Garbo turned Williams down. In fact she turned down every offer to return to the screen.
"He had all of his notes he had written to present to her as a kind of treatment," says Robert Allan Ackerman, the director of Showtime's new movie version of "Roman Spring," which can be seen next Sunday. "He just expanded it a bit and turned it into a novella."
That "Roman Spring" is being adapted and revived is in keeping with Hollywood's unabating desire to regularly reconsider his body of works. Starting with his first theatrical hit, "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945 and including "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Williams has been perhaps second only to Shakespeare as a favorite for films as well as TV.
But it was different with "Roman Spring," which was not a play and never acquired the notoriety and visibility of his hit plays. It was 11 years after publication that "Roman Spring" made it to the big screen.
The story has all the ingredients found in Williams' best plays: a fragile heroine who enters into an ill-fated relationship with a younger man.
Karen Stone is an aging actress whose older, richer husband has bankrolled her career, even convincing her to star in a production of "Romeo and Juliet." The reviews are scathing. After the show's quick demise, Karen and her ailing husband take a trip to Italy. In the poverty-stricken post-World War II Rome, the couple meet the Contessa, a cunning, manipulative woman who presides over a stable of young men whom she matches with lonely women.
When her husband dies of heart attack, Karen decides to stay in Rome. Adrift and in shock at the loss of her husband, she contacts the Contessa, who introduces her to a group of handsome gigolos, most notably the Contessa's favorite, the handsome Paolo. Karen quickly takes to the charming young man, who sexually awakens her.
Paolo also starts to fall in love with her and doesn't seem to mind that Karen doesn't lavish presents and money upon him. But this being vintage Williams, the relationship soon falters and Karen finds herself even more vulnerable and depressed.
The 1961 version received very mixed reviews from the critics. Vivien Leigh, who had won an Oscar a decade earlier as Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar," was particularly faulted for failing to capture Karen's pathos.
Warren Beatty, in one of his first films roles, proved he was no master of accents as the gigolo Paolo, though German actress Lotte Lenya received a best supporting actress nomination for her role as the Contessa.
Closer to the original
The Showtime adaptation, penned by playwright Martin Sherman ("Bent"), is much closer to Williams' original novella. Helen Mirren stars as Karen; Olivier Martinez of "Unfaithful" is Paolo; and Anne Bancroft is the Contessa. Brian Dennehy plays Karen's rich husband and Rodrigo Santoro plays a mysterious, homeless young man who tracks Karen's every move.
"Martin Sherman's adaptation is so much closer to the novella because it takes place in 1950 right after World War II," says Ackerman. In the original film, the action unfolded in 1961, when the Italian economy was on the upswing.
"In this version," says Ackerman, "the Italians, rather than just coming across as evil, decadent European aristocracy, you really understand what is driving them: poverty. They lost their money and they have deep anti-American feelings. All of that seemed to be incredibly relevant. It gave the entire piece a much more political, social point of view."
Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime, said he quickly green-lighted the project when executive producer Hilary Heath approached him.
"I knew the original movie had a very famous cast and that it was very lightly regarded, very flawed and therefore it was an opportunity to try to improve upon the original," says Offsay. Of the project's sometimes difficult Rome production, he added: "They survived threatened strikes and boycotts and all sorts of bits of drama there, but it gives it the authenticity that it needed. They wanted to live up to the material and they wanted to say that this is what Tennessee Williams is about, not that other very flawed movie."
Both Mirren and Ackerman point out that there is a lot of Williams in the character of Karen Stone.