Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.
Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason
Director: John Erman
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas. Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper. Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop. That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.
Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off.
The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together.
What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily. All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy. Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.
Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere. Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable. The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time. Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky. He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight).
Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations. The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.
Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time. I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina. The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.