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Stone Pillow (1985) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

film lucille carrie ball

Principal social theme: homelessness/poverty

CBS. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Lucille Ball, Daphne Zuniga, William Converse-Roberts, Stephen Lang, Susan Batson, Anna Maria Horsford, Stefan Schnabel, Josephine Nichols, Peter Phillips, Rebecca Schull, Imogene Bliss, Michael Champagne, Gloria Cromwell, Pat MacNamara, Matthew Locricchio, Edward Seamon, Ray Sera, Gary Singer, Patrick Kilpatrick. Written by Rose Leiman Goldenberg. Cinematography by Walter Lasally. Edited by Andy Blumenthal. Music by Georges Delerue. Produced and directed by George Schaefer. Color. 96 minutes.


The final starring film role of Lucille Ball’s career was a startling choice, a realistic drama about an elderly bag lady and her determination to cope and survive on the streets of New York City. Stone Pillow was broadcast on November 5, 1985, receiving good to excellent ratings and is considered one of the finest portrayals ever done of the plight of the homeless. A few reviewers, however, panned the film in a critical backlash, calling Ball a late convert to social concerns.


Carrie Lang (Daphne Zuniga) is an idealistic young social worker who wants to understand the growing phenomenon of homelessness. While visiting the Hargrove Shelter, she meets Florabelle, a feisty, streetwise old woman who agrees to show Carrie the truth about life on the streets. Through an episodic series of events, Carrie learns to see the world through Florabelle’s eyes, learning her habits, such as rubbing vinegar on her feet to toughen them up, and her routines. A genuine bond develops between the two women, but when apart, Carrie returns to her apartment, and Florabelle returns to her life on the streets.


Stone Pillow was filmed entirely on location in Manhattan during the late spring of 1985, and on several occasions Lucille Ball almost passed out due to heat and exhaustion. She was largely unrecognizable in the role, which was an asset while the film was being shot. There is little humor in Ball’s performance, which is realistic, honest, and convincing. Filming at the Port Authority Bus Terminal was done largely in the middle of the night, illustrating the difficulty of the shoot. Several homeless people reportedly were used as extras during the shooting, which added to the verisimilitude of the production. The storyline of Stone Pillow was almost plotless at times, since the project was largely conceived as a character portrait rather than a drama. There was little chemistry between Daphne Zuniga and Lucille Ball, both on screen and off, but this did not seem to harm the film.

Stone Pillow raised a number of thorny issues, including the rights of the homeless, their freedom of choice, their mental health, the influence of drugs and alcohol, and the question of if and when city authorities should intervene in their care. The only time the police seem to act is to hustle them away from one location, only to have them recongregate in a different spot. For the most part, average people try to ignore them. One of the aims of Stone Pillow is simply to encourage people to take notice. In simple but dramatic fashion, Stone Pillow shines a spotlight on this harrowing lifestyle.

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