Stella

  • 1990
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Drama

The first question that this remake of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle STELLA DALLAS brings to mind is: Why bother? Stanwyck's definitive version (which, along with THE LADY EVE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, represented a career peak for her), directed by King Vidor, was already a remake of a 1925 silent that itself contained a legendary performance by Belle...read more

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The first question that this remake of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle STELLA DALLAS brings to mind is: Why bother? Stanwyck's definitive version (which, along with THE LADY EVE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, represented a career peak for her), directed by King Vidor, was already a remake of a

1925 silent that itself contained a legendary performance by Belle Bennett. Moreover, even back in 1937 the critics questioned the shameless hokum of this bathetic tale of motherly sacrifice, although they were happy to succumb to Stanwyck's daringly extreme, gut-wrenching portrayal. Actresses

possess nothing if not healthy egos, however, and Bette Midler seems to have had no trepidations in re-entering this well-trod ground with STELLA. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here seem to lack any notion of how to create a well-crafted vehicle, and the whole thing comes off as an uncertain,

shoddy attempt to wring box-office dollars from sniffling audiences.

The story opens in 1969 (a favorite year in recent movie scripts), when Stella Claire (Midler) is a waitress in a small-town, upstate New York bar. While performing a rambunctious striptease parody for the patrons, she attracts the eye of Stephen Dallas (Stephen Collins), a handsome pre-med

student. Despite her initial misgivings--the guy has "out of her league" written all over him--a night of love ensues and she soon finds herself pregnant. Not being one to take the easy road, she turns down Stephen's rather lackadaisical marriage proposal, deciding to raise the child on her own,

and, through the years, baby Jenny (Trini Alvarado) grows up as Mama's pride and somewhat overprotected joy. Determined to keep her daughter away from the neighborhood riff-raff, Stella is happy to pack the young woman's bags for a vacation at Stephen's tony Manhattan domicile, now shared with his

wife (Marsha Mason) and her son by a previous marriage. There, Jenny meets the scion of an upper-crust family (William McNamara), and she returns home dazzled with high-flown romantic possibilities. Stella sees the change in her and, after some parlor Sturm und Drang, makes the ultimate sacrifice,

deciding to give Jenny up for good. As these things go, everyone concerned is incredibly understanding of the working-class Stella's desire to hold on to her kid--she has so little, after all--but Mother knows best, and Stella achieves final, complete maternal fulfillment when she lurks outside

the Tavern on the Green restaurant, watching Jenny marry her rather fey prince.

Aside from some pseudofeminist sentiments voiced by the pregnant Stella early in the film (wherein she bewails the excess of unappetizing choices offered her as an unmarried mother, from abortion to adoption), screenwriter Robert Getchell has made little attempt to update the material. The best

filmed soap operas--including Bette Davis' DARK VICTORY (1939), Margaret Sullavan's BACK STREET (1941), Olivia de Havilland's TO EACH HIS OWN (1946), and Stanwyck's STELLA DALLAS--were cannily engineered to have a nightmarish inevitability, each masochistic effect carefully inserted for maximum

tear-jerking potential. STELLA plays like a warped record, with artificially bravura moments springing out of nowhere, while the calmer sequences are suffused by a treacly, bathetic sentimentality. The camera continually lingers a beat too long on the aftermaths of big dramatic scenes, followed by

even slower fades. This inadvertently gives the audience too much time to anticipate (and dread) the next feeble emotional assault. Even the familiar story's famous birthday party scene is robbed of whatever pathetic delicacy it might have, because of a gratuitous shot of some boys mooning Stella

and Jenny.

Midler gives a sloppy, inattentive performance, worse than any of her previous screen appearances. Can this possibly be the same woman who shook the heavens in THE ROSE and could knock you out of your seat in live performance? Midler's acting here makes even her work in BEACHES seem a miracle of

freshness. As Stella, she employs a wispy, little-girl voice that every now and then remembers to assume some kind of regional accent--presumably meant to sound working-class (four dialect coaches are listed in the credits). In her tearfully sacrificial exchanges with Alvarado, she comes

perilously close to Joan Crawford-style grimacing, and her feigned insensitivity in the big get-outta-my-life scene with her daughter is facile, one-level acting devoid of subtext. (The scene is further falsified when, incredibly, Stella hurls a bottle that just misses Jenny's head.) Stanwyck set

the tone for her characterization in the very first scenes; her Stella was flashily ambitious and vulgar and completely unapologetic, which made her eventual self-realization all the more heartbreaking. Midler, once motherhood takes hold, is a mousy, puritanical drag, forever alone and stitching

at something in the dark. Her brassier moments--the striptease, her telling off a young thug who has come to woo Jenny, and, especially, her psychedelically attired cavorting in Florida that horrifies her daughter's set (and plays like a rejected number from her stage act)--are totally out of

character. Such mixed signals are, of course, partly the fault of the slovenly filmmaking (in which even Stella's famed penchant for gaudy outfits is confused: a Christmas reunion with Stephen has her suddenly appearing in perfect, matronly elegance, after having rid her dress of an obstreperous

spangle), but Midler also seems curiously hesitant to go all the way with the role--the only way it could possibly work--and her final scene is a pale imitation of Stanwyck's indelible hankie-chewing, ecstatic image.

Alvarado, a dark beauty, does what she can with the basically impossible part of the daughter, who, in all versions, is scripted as a blindly insensitive princess who gets it all in the end. Collins is far more attractive than the gruesomely complacent John Boles was in 1937, but is undone by his

repeated, smarmy exhortations to Alvarado to "put [her] head right here" (pointing to his shoulder). Marsha Mason lacks the languid hauteur of Alice Joyce (1925) and Barbara O'Neil (1937) that would make her an effective contrast to Stella, and is predictable in a predictable part, while the

near-ubiquitous John Goodman--appearing in Alan Hale's old role as Stella's vulgarian friend--is particularly demeaned by the film. Ben Stiller (son of Stiller and Meara) brings some menacing life to his punk role in a ludicrous "just-say-no" drug episode involving a momentarily confused Jenny,

but Eileen Brennan, in a bit part as a disapproving snob, disappears from the film after Midler gets to insult her with a patented bitchy remark. (Profanity, substance abuse, adult situations, sexual situations.)

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  • Released: 1990
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: The first question that this remake of the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle STELLA DALLAS brings to mind is: Why bother? Stanwyck's definitive version (which, along with THE LADY EVE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, represented a career peak for her), directed by King V… (more)

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