It’s a case of swings & roundabouts between the underrated 1961 original and the cable tv movie of Tennessee Williams’ novella about a recently widowed actress ‘of a certain age,’ financially well off, drifting in Rome with a much younger ‘kept’ lover. 2003 is smoother, more naturalistic, bringing out unexpected affinities to Thomas Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE that go missing in 1961.* It also has a believable stud-from-old-world-stock in Italian lover Olivier Martinez’s cash-poor Count. (Young Warren Beatty’s Italian accent in 1961 is a constant distraction.) But the more important difference is that Helen Mirren superbly acts the role of a lost, self-destructive soul caught in a downward spiral/spiritual vacuum, while Vivien Leigh in ‘61 simply was this character; frighteningly so. Even embarrassingly so. (And her best scene, early in the film telling off some old friends she bumps into on the streets of Rome, is all but tossed away in 2003.) There’s also startling Lotte Lenya as a termagant Contessa, fixing up ‘dates’ for the well-heeled (and getting a cut of the action) which out-points anything a non-Brechtian actress can offer . . . or dare, including the remake’s game Anne Bancroft. On the other hand, Advantage 2003 for Roger Allam’s Tennessee Williams inspired character. (He takes over from 1961's Coral Browne. Quite the switch!) 1961 probably holds more keys to the book’s mysteries, but 2003 is more than an addendum of corrections. (Please see separate Write-Up for ‘61.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Alas, there’s no getting ‘round Williams’ tramp/stalker/angel-of-death figure in both films. But must the 2003 wastrel look more like a high fashion model than the princely gigolos La Contessa digs up for her clients?
DOUBLE-BILL: *The 1961 film was pilloried, and the only feature from master stage director José Quintero. But any technical bumps are worth looking past for Leigh, a great beauty ravaged by mental & physical ailments at only 48. That’s ten years younger than Mirren was, and it also possibly helps explain why she was spared a last act ‘youth’ treatment/make-over that adds a good decade to the fearless Ms. Mirren, and brings out those DEATH IN VENICE echoes.