Performance of the week: Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)

Whenever an actress gives a legendary performance, it is inevitable that people feel this need to compare that performance to her other works. People tend to put down these other works because they don’t up to the legendary status of the iconic performances, but what I feel is that people also tend to overlook the fact that these performances are still solid, great works at the end of the day. You can say that had these “lesser” performances been performed by lesser actresses, they would have been considered outstanding achievements. It happens so many times, even today – Great Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs (Sorry, no point denying my admiration for this performance), Marvellous Meryl Streep in any one of her nominations following Sophie’s Choice etc.

For Vivien Leigh, it is not one, but two of such iconic performances that are widely regarded as the greatest of all time till today. After all, her performance as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire is this blogger’s personal favourite female performance (Sorry, won’t shut up about this too – it bears repeating). She didn’t really have any prominent film roles after her two Oscar-winning turns; not because she wasn’t wanted, but probably because she chose to focus more on her theatre career, and her personal life problems. I have always loved this woman and her brilliant acting talent. She was certainly a theatrical one, but it worked – she was never faking her scenes with superficial mannerisms, but portraying her characters with pure brutal honesty, almost pouring herself into them even. And like Geraldine Page, the big mannerisms combined with the emotional intensity and honesty makes her a true force on screen.

Leigh’s performance here as Karen Stone is a lot different from Scarlett O’ Hara and Blanche Dubois – she is a lot less over the top and a lot more subtle. To some, this may be underwhelming but I think it makes total sense. Karen Stone isn’t a fake, manipulative and spoilt southern belle who has to act cute, charming and coy to get exactly what she wants. She also isn’t a delusional woman who thinks that she is still living in the past and only WANTS MAGIC! What you see from Karen Stone is a woman with dignity, an ageing widow who has a quietly burning sadness in her eyes. Like A Streetcar Named Desire, this role reflected what Leigh was going through at that point of her life. Her marriage with Laurence Olivier had collapsed, and she was facing numerous health-related problems. As Karen herself said, she was “drifting”, and Leigh excellently portrayed this. She doesn’t get a lot of huge dramatic scenes, but she like a ghost who is floating through Rome aimlessly. There is just something haunting and ethereal about her; she’s not “out there” like Scarlett and Blanche, but the “mysterious woman” whom you read about in poems. Like the homeless man who stalks her, you are always curious and intrigued by her when you see her walking down the streets with that always visible sadness in her eyes.

In a typical Tennessee Willams fashion, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone deals with themes like ageing and youth. As mentioned earlier, unlike Blanche Dubois, Karen Stone has accepted the fact that she’s old and unwanted, but you can still sense this quiet desperation to cling on to that prospect of being desired. There is a lot of dignity in this woman; she refuses to be a “client” to the Contessa (played superbly by Oscar-nominated Lotte Lenya), a female pimp who is a bit too eager to push her gigolos to wealthy and lonely old women.  She believes, or is deluding herself, that Paolo (played pretty terribly by Warren Beatty) is firmly in love with her, and is not using her for money. You can really see how well Leigh identified herself in this part, like A Streetcar Named Desire. The desperation, insecurities, loneliness and the need to be desired again can be seen and felt off her, and watching her being described as a “chicken hawk” who preys on young men at the end is just uncomfortably saddening. Even though Warren Beatty is giving a really bad performance (coming from someone who usually praises criticised performances, mind you), Leigh sells their scenes together by actually making me believe that she is genuinely happy with him. *SPOILER* All these make the ending more haunting, when everything turns against her and she decided to seek companionship with the homeless man who has been obsessed with her right from the beginning. Her final expression of resignation and sadness is just brilliant. *SPOILER* And it is from here you realise that although she is not fully crazy, Karen Stone is in fact sick and her reality, like Blanche Dubois, is crumbling around her when she realised that she is being made used of. What is amazing about the performance is how she could have been played exactly the same as Blanche Dubois, but Leigh gives a subtle and more nuanced spin on the character, which is needed here since the desperation and emotional intensity of these two characters are on different levels. It feels like two different characters, and yet you can sense how personal and deep both performances are coming from her. Even though one can say that there isn’t a lot of “flashy” acting, monologues and tears, which is probably what cost her the awards recognition, I’ve always felt that this performance is incredibly real –it’s like she wasn’t even acting anymore, and I think that’s what sets her performance apart from the other “quiet” roles. She was Karen Stone.

Still, Vivien Leigh wasn’t nominated for any major acting awards for her performance here. The Oscar ultimately went to Sophia Loren for her brilliant turn in Two Women that year. However, even though this is a quiet performance, it’s one that I fully admire and respect by this brilliant actress. She doesn’t blow you away like Scarlett O’ Hara and Blanche Dubois, but slowly haunts your mind like a ghost.

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