"It's a great life if you don't weaken," intones Bette Midler as the noble heroine of "Stella" (citywide). Ugh.
Do we really need to be put through another version of "Stella Dallas"? Is this the vehicle that Bette Midler thinks will reclaim her serious-actress status? If so, she's greatly misunderstood her gifts, which stand in raucous, subversive contrast to everything this sudsy weepie represents. Directed by John Erman, freighted with a musical score of soaring banality, this 20-year saga of an uneducated, working-class single mother who sacrifices everything to give her daughter the chance she never had is so recklessly shameless it verges on camp parody.
No one involved in "Stella" is quite in on the joke, however, with the possible exception of screenwriter Robert Getchell who, based on such past scripts as "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Bound for Glory," surely must recognize the difference between honest sentiment and slop. There's a giddy, what-the-hell quality about a few of his sequences, as if he had decided to throw caution to the perfumed winds and indulge his affection for the excesses of '40s women's films.
I'll say this much for "Stella." It's got more loony oomph than all those Joan Crawford/Lana Turner vehicles that it superficially resembles. It plays out our own giddy fantasies of those films in much the same way that the great Carol Burnett movie tear-jerker parodies on TV did, but without the redeeming saving grace of wit. The movie is crazy without knowing it.
When we first spot Stella, she's tending bar in a rough, chummy dive in Watertown, N.Y. Nursing a beer in that bar is Stephen Dallas (Stephen Collins), a handsome, well-to-do medical resident specializing in kidney diseases. (The filmmakers missed a camp metaphorical moment by not making him a cardiologist.) Turned on by Stella's mock striptease atop the bar, he ends up convincing her to reassess her opinion of "fancy" men and have dinner with him. A giddy dalliance follows. So does a baby daughter.
Stella, you understand, has already rejected what appeared to be a sincere offer by the kidney doctor to make her an honest woman, or failing that, support her and the child. (That's why there's no "Dallas" affixed to this "Stella.") As a result, she has to scrimp and slave to raise her daughter (the lovely Trini Alvarado) solo. We're supposed to regard her rejection of Stephen as righteous but, really, it's a bonehead decision, particularly since Stephen is portrayed as a pillar of virtue. Stella snubs him because if she didn't, there wouldn't be a movie.
Stella's character suggests psychological entanglements that have no way of being addressed in a movie this ding-a-ling-y. Her obsessive single-motherhood has a self-punishing quality. So does her walling off of any subsequent suitors--and we're talking 20 years here. Despite her mock stripteases and sensual heft, this Stella is basically a prig. She lives to toil and suffer.
We're cued to recognize all that suffering as noble rather than masochistic. And that's where the movie really turns into a crock. Self-sacrifice makes Stella angelic. She mostly makes her living selling beauty supplies door to door, and the irony is not lost on us: She may look like a rumply harridan on the outside, but inside she's beauty incarnate. Does this dumb dichotomy explain why the film makers have gone to such great lengths to make Bette Midler look so unappetizing? From some angles, she might be Ben Franklin in a blond fright wig.
The uglification serves another dubious purpose. It's a quick-read visual aid to class consciousness. In the fluffy never-never land of "Stella," where one registers the progress of the decades only by the pop tunes on the sound track, the working class is peopled exclusively by chubby louts and punks. Even Stella's mainstay buddy, the good-natured, alcoholic Ed Munn (John Goodman), spends most of his time barging in on her, stomach first. The film makers are so concerned that we recognize Stella's passion to rid her daughter of poverty that they turn poverty into a species of dementia.
Meanwhile, Stephen and the book-publisher whiz (Marsha Mason) he intends to marry are impeccably groomed, inside and out. They are what money was made for--to savor the finer things. The film makers can't even allow for the possibility that Stella might have it in her to appreciate those finer things for herself. Early on, Stephen in tow, she disrupts a classical voice recital by literally throttling herself with boredom; later on, the film scores points against her by pointing up her ignorance of Harold Pinter. (She buys tickets to a Pinter play for Christmas Eve!)