PACIFIC STARS AND STRIPES
‘Stella’: An old story gets a new twist
By Janet Maslin
In both the famous 1937 King Vidor version of “Stella Dallas” and the apt-to-be-less-famous (but still surprisingly workable) 1990 remake, Stella receives an unexpected visitor one Christmas Eve. He is Stephen Dallas, the well-born, debonair father of Stella’s beloved only child, and Stella hasn’t seen him in a long time.
SHE WANTS to make the right impression. So she hurries to her bedroom and dresses with care, stopping at the last minute to tear off a bit of extra trimming. She knows that her outfit looks a lot more elegant without it. This is the scene that gives the lie to “Stella Dallas,” to “Stella” and to Stella herself, a character whose popularity as a soapsuds heroine is in no way compromised by the fact that she happens not to make any sense.
On the one hand, she’s a simple seamstress and homebody willing to sacrifice everything for her child’s best interests even by going so far as to bow out of her daughter’s life. On the other, she is sufficiently canny (and, in the Barbara Stanwyck version, even calculating) to have trapped and bagged Stephen Dallas in the first place.
It’s just as well that “Stella Dallas” is holeridden, since the job of trying to fill those holes is such a lively part of the film-making process. Any version of this story is even more valuable as sociological artifact than it is as drama.
The 1937 version, with its utter faith in the rightness of Stella’s decision to catapult her daughter into a life of wealth and privilege, reflected a Depression view of class distinctions as a source of escapism, not of resentment. The 1990 retread, made at a time when factors like wealth, single parenthood and the independence of children are so far from what they used to be, paints a very different picture.
LIKE JESSICA LANGE playing another kind of single mother in “Men Don’t Leave,” Bette Midler is a patently strong-willed and persuasive actress working overtime to seem submissive and frail. And Robert GetchelPs screenplay for “Stella”
(which was directed by John Erman) does its best to bury Midler’s more formidable side.
If her Stella, like Stanwyck’s, went out of her way to land the rich, handsome Stephen Dallas, she might lose audience sympathy from the outset. Therefore, the new “Stella” removes one onus from its heroine by making her less predatory. But it adds another by making her an unwed mother.
So there is Stella, innocently working as a barmaid (before she begins taking in sewing) in a cozy little upstate New York watering hole, when in wanders a great-looking medical student in a cashmere sweater
Stella hardly knows he’s there when she happens, just as part of the evening’s fun, to leap onto the counter and do a lively pantomime of a striptease. Stephen Dallas can’t help but notice, and soon he is begging for a chance to get to know Stella better. But she turns him down. She doesn’t trust guys in cashmere, she says.
The age, appearance and well-known personality of Bette Midler mean that this is nonsense from the start, but still it’s fairly shrewd. ONCE STELLA HAS disavowed any attraction to Stephen’s money and breeding, she can concentrate on showing herself off as great company and a great sport. The courtship stage is thus made reasonably credible, and so is the fact of Stella’s unexpected pregnancy.
When faced with this, Stephen Dallas tries to help Stella in any way possible, whether by marrying her or financing an abortion. It isn’t easy for either Stella or the film makers to explain why she would so adamantly reject his support.
In fact, if today’s Stella had married and then separated from a spouse, she would elicit a lot less sympathy than her 1937 counterpart.
It’s important to the story that Stephen Dallas not be presented as a heel. He would no doubt be an attentive father; and a divorced father of today would have every reason to expect to play an active role in his child’s life. It would be much harder to present Stella, with a wealthy and helpful ex-husband in the background, as a lonely martyr sacrificing everything for her little girl.
A working-class heritage is no longer a good enough explanation of why Stella feels she has no chance to better her own lot. What holds Stella back and keeps her in a small town, selling cosmetics door to door (in a later stage of her
THE NEW FILM offers no direct explanation, but it hints at an indirect one. Stella starts out working in a bar, and her close pal Ed Munn (played by John Goodman) has a drinking problem.
If Stella herself had a tendency to indulge too much, her strange mood swings, her flamboyant behavior and her inability to break though the narrow boundaries of her life would at least have some logic. But then, of course, she’d be a lot less viable as a victim. And it’s fun to watch an actress sink her teeth into such a great big hambone of a role.