Films, TV, and Theatre

Stella (1989)

Sentimental drama about the relationship between a mother and daughter starring Bette Midler, Trini Alvarado and John Goodman.

Stars: Bette Midler, Trini Alvarado, John Goodman, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason, Linda Hart, Ben Stiller
Director: John Erman

TV Guide

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.)

Variety Staff

The semitragic Stella Dallas shows her years in this hopelessly dated and ill-advised remake.

The idea of a lower-class mother who selflessly sends her daughter off to her upper-crust dad and his new wife - all so daughter can land the right beau - must sound like nails on a blackboard to Equal Rights Amendment proponents, and Bette Midler's ballsy wit completely misses the redeeming lower-class yearning Barbara Stanwyck gave the 1937 role.

All of the significant changes in the story come early, as Stella (Midler) meets a young doctor (Stephen Collins) while tending bar and quickly gets pregnant by him. She refuses his half-hearted offfer of marriage as well as any financial help, letting him run off to New York while she raises their daughter (Trini Alvarado) on her own.

Erman and writer Robert Getchell try to inject some levity into the maudlin proceedings. On that front they largely succeed, thanks primarily to the winning performance by John Goodman as Stella's long-suffering admirer Ed as well as Midler's natural comic flair.

Roger Ebert

"Stella" is the kind of movie they used to call a tearjerker, and we might as well go ahead and still call it that, because all around me at the sneak preview people were blowing noses and sort of softly catching their breath - you know, the way you do when you're having a great time. It tells a story that is predictable from beginning to end, except that who would have predicted this old story still had so much life in it, or that the actors would fill it with such warmth and sentiment? "Stella" may be corny, but it's got a great big heart.

The basic plot elements are more or less the same as the last time this story was filmed, starring Barbara Stanwyck, in 1937. A poor but plucky mother has a daughter out of wedlock, proudly refuses financial aid from the rich man who is the father, and raises the girl on her own. Mother and daughter love each other, but the day comes when the mother - a former barmaid, now selling cosmetics door to door - realizes that the father and his sophisticated fiancee can give the girl (now college age) the advantages she needs. So the mother gives away her daughter - all but drives her away - and the ending is pure melodrama.

"Audiences came to sneer and stayed to weep," film historian Leslie Halliwell said of the 1937 version. They're likely to do the same thing this time. Every charge you can make against this movie is probably true - it's cornball, manipulative, unlikely, sentimental and shameless. But once the lights go down and the performances begin, none of those things really matter, because this "Stella" has a quality that many more sophisticated films lack: It makes us really care about its characters.

Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado play the mother and daughter as well as I can imagine them being played, with style and life. They don't put on long faces and march through the gloom. Midler must have played around with a lot of walks and a lot of accents - she must have experimented with attitudes and personal styles - before she hit on the right note for Stella. She's a tough broad who, as the movie opens in 1969, tends bar for a living and who has even been known to climb up on the bar when someone plays "The Stripper" on the jukebox. She's not educated, but she's smart and funny, and has a determined, independent attitude toward life.

The bar is a working-class, shot-and-beer joint. One night a slick customer comes in wearing a cashmere sweater and a nice smile. He likes the way she had fun when she dances. Against her better judgment, they have an affair, she gets pregnant, he halfway offers to marry her, she says nothing doing, and the rest of the movie is about how she raises the kid, named Jenny, on her own. The father (Stephen Collins) stays in the picture, however, because he comes to love his daughter. So does his financee (Marsha Mason). And there is the steady guy in Stella's life, a bartender named Ed (John Goodman) who is a pal, not a lover, and sticks with her through her problems while piling up a lot of his own.

The movie, directed by John Erman and written by Robert Getchell, doesn't miss a single opportunity to generate emotion from its story. There's the girl's 16th birthday party, where nobody comes. The lonely Christmas Eve. The crush that Jenny gets on a sincere young preppie, and the way her mother embarrasses her by dancing with the waiter at a posh Florida resort. What "Stella" proves is that no scene is really hackneyed or predictable unless the people making the movie think of it that way. Midler and Alvarado put so much belief into their scenes, so much unforced affection and life, that only an embittered grinch could refuse to be touched.

In an odd sort of way, some of the same notes in "Stella" were played, not so well, in Midler's previous tearjerker, "Beaches" (1989). That one was more sophisticated and cool and knowledgeable, and not half as effective.

There are scenes here of great difficulty, which Midler plays wonderfully; the scene, for example, where she goes to Marsha Mason's office to ask if Jenny can come to live with Mason and Collins. She believes the time has come to let Jenny take advantage of her father's culture and position, even if that means she loses her daughter: "I'm not gonna let nothing stand in the way of my Jenny," she says. She learns that Mason, the chic publishing executive, comes from a poor rural background. She asks about Mason's sisters. Are they successful? Are they happy? Mason's face shows they are not. "I knew it," Midler says. "They didn't get out."

Although the story in "Stella" is what manipulates the audience, the style is what makes the movie glow. Midler's Stella shows quiet flashes of the Midler stage persona, especially when she puts people down, and, in moderation, the flashes work. So does the movie's refusal to allow Stella to live in self-pity. She sheds some tears, yes, but in her own mind she has achieved a series of victories in bearing a daughter, preserving her own self- esteem, and launching Jenny into the great world. "Stella" is the kind of movie that works you over and leaves you feeling good, unless you absolutely steel yourself against it. Go to sneer. Stay to weep.

Rita Kempley, Washington Post Staff Writer

From bathhouse chanteuse to Lemon Joy diva, from self-proclaimed queen of camp, sass and tactlessness to goddess of suds, sap and pap -- yes, you have come a long way, Baby Divine. Gone is the Bette Midler of "Clams on the Half Shell" and "Ruthless People," the better Midler, and in her place is this new middling piddler.

In "Stella," the second remake of a 1925 weepie, Midler makes her second bow as a big-screen sob sister. Last year she was at least brassy in "Beaches," a three-hankie Ivory Soap sudser that saw singer Midler adopt the daughter of dead pal Barbara Hershey. "Stella," which finds Midler single-mothering again, is basically "Beaches" without Hershey and the salt water. This insipid suck-face-athon provokes the gag reflex.

As Stella Claire, Midler evokes about as much sympathy as Mommie Dearest. She doesn't use a coat hanger on her daughter, Jenny (Trini Alvarado), the product of an affair with impossibly affable urologist Stephen Dallas (Stephen Collins); she just smothers her with selfless love. Midler imagines she's microwaving our cockles, but Stella comes off as a greedy, spiteful wretch who sacrifices Jenny's needs to her own wrongheaded principles.

She's too stubborn to accept child support from Dr. Dallas, who is more than eager to provide a better life for Stella and his daughter, and insists on raising Jenny in the squalor to which she is herself accustomed. "Let's mix some oil and water. Good idea," she sneers when dear, dear Dr. Dallas offers to marry her. This oil-and-water theme persists throughout the melodrama; once screenwriter Robert Getchell hits upon the motivation, he feels obliged to reiterate it. "When you mix oil and water," says Dallas to his daughter, "You mix and mix and mix and mix and you've still got oil and water." The dialogue sounds like a recipe for safe salad dressing.

Dallas is a classy guy -- to whom the heroine was wed in the 1925 and 1937 versions -- and Stella is one step up from a bag lady. But in an effort to liberate the 65-year-old hankie dampener -- and so dilute its impact -- she has been changed to a struggling single mother who sews Jenny's party dresses with her own hands after a hard day of hustling cheap cosmetics to suburbanites. "I love you, Jenny," she says, biting a thread. And Jenny, who would rather go live with her rich father and his perfect fiancee, Janice (Marsha Mason), in a big fine house, says, "I love you too, Mom." Dad prefers, "You are loved." The plot positively overflows with sophomoric sentiment, a veritable bubble bathos of vapid remonstrances and melodramatic posturing. Even Oprah's audiences are far too sophisticated for this preposterous goo.

Let's face it. Stella is an insensitive slattern who repeatedly humiliates her daughter with her Harper Valley PTA act. When nobody comes to her Sweet Sixteen party after her mother is arrested in a barroom brawl, Jenny takes up with the wrong crowd. Now Stella must give up the daughter she adores to assure her a better life with her father. She doesn't just say, "Look kid, you'd be better off with your father. But we'll spend lots of time together too." That way, she wouldn't get to be a sniveling martyr.

No, she pretends to drive the girl away so that she can at long last marry crude souse Ed Munn (John "I Just Can't Keep My Pants Hitched Up" Goodman). Jenny goes off to Dad's Manhattan digs to meet and marry a kindly preppie at Tavern on the Green. Outside, a blond hag in a plastic rain bonnet -- Stella -- smiles beatifically through her tears. Sniff and scratch.

Midler seems on the verge of breaking into song but never does, though she mimes a jokey striptease for a roughhouse audience in a Watertown bar, a scene that unfortunately recalls the prelude to the rape in "The Accused." After the dance, the good-looking Dr. Dallas, the sort of guy who tosses around adjectives like "puerile," begs the lantern-jawed Stella to go out with him. He chooses a night of German operetta. Why would he give this witch the time of day, much less the chance to hear a yodeling Valkyrie?

The elegant Alvarado seems to the manner born but looks a lot like the milkman. She and some of the bit players offer the film's only tolerable performances. Collins is as persuasive as a Gillette stubble stroker, and Goodman is without his usual lumpen luster. He manages to be thud dull under the guidance -- as are they all -- of John Erman, the Emmy Award-winning director of television melodramas such as "An Early Frost" and "Who Will Love My Children." Once a classic take on class struggle, "Stella" has become a cringing mummy's tale. It's a jeer-jerker.

Sky Movies

This 'classic' weepie was creaky even in Barbara Stanwyck's day. So there was little chance that even Bette Midler could pull a new version of this old chestnut out of the fire. And so it proves, although the new "Stella" (Dallas, that is) is actually worse than you might fear. Would a better script have helped? It's certainly hard to believe that Robert Getchell, who wrote Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, also did this garbage whose nightmare, Dynasty-style dialogue would make buffoons out of a better cast than this. Stephen Collins, as the man who makes Stella pregnant, actually achieves the unwelcome distinction of being worse than John Boles in the original, although, required to keep telling Trini Alvarado as his daughter 'I don't know about you, but I need you to put your head right here' (on his shoulder), he can be partly excused the glazed look and slack-jawed disbelief. There remain a few Midler whiplash wisecracks but, over two hours, they fade like drops of water in a desert. Even with everything right, this remake would still have been a mistake. As it is, it's a disaster.