BetteBack February 3, 1990: Review – Midler’s Performance In ‘Stella’ Is A Brave One

Daily Herald Suburban Chicago
February 3, 1990


Every once in a while, Hollywood studios make a movie “just like they used to,” and we’re reminded how nostalgia tends to filter out the outrageous affectations accepted by film audiences of past generations.

Stella” is an unabashed domestic soap opera made “just like they used to.” Actually, it’s a remake of two movies produced back when studios were making movies “just like they used to,” before they realized they were making movies that way.

Hollywood first turned Olive Higgins Prouty‘s novel Stella Dallas into a 1925 silent drama that became a seminal big-screen soap opera, complete with the now-cornball “out in the cold, cold snow” finale. Later in 1937, the late Barbara Stanwyck picked up an Academy award nomination in the title role of a crude working-class mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter, who in turn learns to look down on people like her mom.

The new “Stella,” starring Bette Midler, is an easy target for critical assaults. It carries the schmaltzy aftertaste of Midler’s last three-hanky drama “Beaches.” Its dramatic devices are transparent manipulations that teeter between exploitation and irritation. The ending musters a gusty display of shameless ham-handedness that hasn’t been glimpsed since Ryan O’Neal’s hyperbolic “Love means never to having to say you’re sorry” speech at the close of “Love Story.”

Still, the elements of “Stella” seem irresistible. A tough, independent woman raises a daughter on the wrong side of the tracks and does a darned good job of it. When the daughter gets a chance to break into a higher social echelon, Mom realizes that she’s the anchor keeping her child down. Yes indeed, some heavy-duty sacrifices will have to be made.

As “Stella,” Midler returns to the big screen with her pliers poised to yank some prerequisite tears from our ducts. Midler is now a mother herself, and her ability to tap into the wave-length of the mother-daughter mystique adds depth and credibility to her scenes with the affable Trini Alvarado, playing her surprisingly well-adjusted daughter Jenny.

Midler’s performance in “Stella” is a brave one, for the entertainer gives up any claim to glamour. By the end of her odyssey through single parenthood, the makeup crew has transformed the ex-Divine Miss M. into Ruth Buzzi‘s grimacing bag lady from TV’s “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” “Stella” revels in its ability to kick the love of dignity out of this woman – to put her down, to make her look bad, and to never give her a break – so our lips can tremble with proud admiration at Stella’s steely resolve to raise her daughter
properly without help from anyone, including the fledgling yuppie responsible for Jenny.

Stephen Collins, who excels at portraying superficial yuppies in the Dan Quayle category, plays Stephen Dallas, a medical student whose fling with a local bartender named Stella isn’t the least bit inconceivable.

In fact, she. becomes pregnant.

Stella spurns Steve’s marriage proposal, and even after he becomes a successful doc, rejects any financial aid he offers.

John Goodman, who’s giving Gene Hackman and Michael Caine a run for the title of “Actor Appearing in More Movies Than Anyone Ever Thought Possible,” plays Ed, a well-meaning dufus whose obvious alcoholism prevents him from becoming the apple of Stella’s eye. Marsha Mason walks through the story with a blinding radiance as Janice Morrison, a well-to-do magazine editor and Stephen’s post-medical school main squeeze.

“It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken,” Stella keeps saying. She never weakens, but her life still never looks that great.

“Stella” never weakens in its quest for a teary appeal. And like its title heroine, it struggles against intimidating odds – labored cliches, stretched dramatic conventions and a certain disrespect for the genre – and strives to be a respectable soap.

“Stella” won’t be everybody’s cup of Cheer, even if does a lot of Biz at the box office.

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