Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Stone Pillow: The Television Movie



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball continues to bring us laughter through her television series I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy (the less said about Life With Lucy the better). It was therefore a shock to audiences to see their favorite wacky redhead as a bag lady. People taken aback by Stone Pillow, however, forget that Ball had a film career where she did drama as well as comedy. Stone Pillow does detail some of the issues facing the homeless, even if it did have at times some bad acting and some seemingly exaggerated moments.

Eager young homeless shelter employee Carrie (Daphne Zuniga) is floundering in her new job. Advised to get to know the homeless, she starts wandering New York City. One of the homeless she encounters is Florabelle (Ball). Flora is an elderly woman who holds on fiercely to her cart and is well-known, if not always well-liked, by the various workers and cops near "her" corner.

Circumstances lead Flora to believe that Carrie is a runaway new to the city. Reluctantly, Flora agrees to show Carrie the ropes of living out in the streets. Everything from finding the best edible food to keeping safe from potential rapists, Flora is there to help. As the day progresses, Flora bonds with this kid, down to sharing her painful memories of Sonny, her long-lost son who disappeared along with her husband after Flora suffered through an illness.

Eventually though, Flora discovers who Carrie really is. More difficulties come when Flora, against her will, is taken with a group of other women from Manhattan to a Brooklyn shelter. It is a dark night for both women, but eventually Carrie is able to help at least one person find a home to start again.

Stone Pillow has a strong central performance from Ball. She threw herself into this ragged but caring old bag lady, proud but also loving. She was appropriately cantankerous whenever facing off against those trying to harm her or Carrie. As the day goes on, however, we see through Ball's performance that Flora is caring. She is not all the time, such as when she dismisses a homeless Indian family as not being worth helping. It is not racism, however, but a fear of being discovered that motivates Flora's reaction, as she later stands up for the Indian woman when in the Brooklyn shelter. 

We even get a little romance when she goes to get medicine for Carrie through an old pharmacist who is sweet on her. It gives a little moment of lightness in a grim story where attempted rapes and a frightening prison-like setting are shown.

Ball was aiming for a big dramatic monolog when talking about Sonny, and she delivers. One has to have a heart of stone not to feel for Florabelle as she remembers her son. Director George Schaefer was wise in both not cutting away from Ball or using Georges Delerue's music play as she reveals why she holds on to an empty photo frame. 

Ball is I would argue the primary bordering on only reason to watch Stone Pillow, for almost everyone and everything else falls short. Zuniga, to be fair, was playing a green, inexperienced social worker. However, at times she was a little too hysterical and eager, depending on the situation. As the movie went on, however, Zuniga like Carrie seemed to pull herself together, the montage of her attempting to call various shelters to find Flora showing her own growth.

Rose Leiman Goldemberg's screenplay at times was too cute and clever for its own good. Naming this ragged figure "Florabelle" (Beautiful Flower in an Italian/French mix) is a bit too overtly symbolic. Her charm with everyone who interacts with her on a regular basis veered dangerously close to making this homeless person almost cute rather than in need. 

The extended Brooklyn shelter sequence played out like a "women in prison" film, where the only thing missing was the lesbian warden. Some of the acting from the other female homeless bordered on the farcical, though William Converse-Roberts as Max, a homeless advocate nicknamed "The Census Taker" by the homeless does well.

Goldemberg's screenplay also is heavy-handed when it shows a sign reading "Never before have so few done so much for so many with so little" right before the uncaring Brooklyn shelter administrator comes to answer the phone. How exactly Flora got back to Manhattan after the horrors of Brooklyn is left unanswered, as is how she happened to arrive at the exact time another person was found dead in "her spot". The ending, which curiously enough played over the credits, gives Flora a happy ending that seems if not completely strange at least curious.

Stone Pillow does, however, have other elements lifting it up. Delerue is a curious choice to score the project, his music going up against what is a gritty and mostly sad story. However, it works here. The film also shines a light on an important subject, even if like many stories on the homeless, it suggests it is more bad luck than anything else that leads to these types of situations.

No mention is made of addiction or mental health issues, both of which are a cause of homelessness. The film does run the risk of making the homeless, especially Florabelle, more of an enchanted creature than a woman struggling daily to survive.

On the whole, however, Stone Pillow mostly balances entertaining with enlightening. We do see a subject that oftentimes gets forgotten. With a strong, standout performance by Lucille Ball, I think fans of both Lucy and those mostly unaware of her work will find much to like in Stone Pillow.


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