Stella! Mother Of Modern Acting

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It may well be that of all the various art forms ever formed, acting has received the lousiest press. Having acted in over fifty plays myself, I can tell any prospective actor reading this that the most frequent question an audience member asks you is, ‘How do you remember all those lines?’ I finally started answering it with a wink and a conspiratorial whispered answer of, ‘Who the hell says I did?’

Oh but it’s true that it all looks so easy when it’s done well. On stage, one walks from spot to spot, says well-rehearsed lines to another actor who knows exactly what he is about to hear, and as for movies? Well, if you make a mess of it, there’s always Take Two or, for that matter, Take Twenty-five. (For that reason by the way, I never excuse a bad performance in a movie. You can always try it again unless the producer is broke.)

In general, actors themselves do nothing to help their status. Were the late Hume Cronyn to come back from the dead, I think I would happily shoot him and send him back to the eternal shade. Why? Cronyn once came out with this grinning piece of advice to actors: ‘Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’ That is the equivalent of telling a painter, ‘Try to leave more paint on the canvas than on your smock. Unless you plan on selling colorful smocks.’

Then there was Olivier, as in Sir Laurence Olivier, for whom the theatre awards in London are named. When a gasping, red-eyed, sleepless Dustin Hoffman showed up on the set of “The Marathon Man” to play a gasping, red-eyed, sleepless scene, Olivier turned to him (and one can hear the mordant drawl) advising, ‘Try acting dear boy, it’s much easier.’ The hell it is.

There are about as many schools and off-shoots of schools of acting as there are branch streams off a decent-sized river. Just in the United States alone, there are three major branches from three different interpretations of Konstantin Stanislavski’s ‘System’ as developed at the Moscow Art Theatre a century ago. There is the Lee Strasberg-designed Actors Studio Method of affective or sense memory, wherein the actor re-lives some personal experience whilst simultaneously playing a part. Then there is Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse technique of ‘The Magic If’ wherein one pretends, based on how one thinks a serial killer or uncertain Danish Prince might behave. And lastly,for our purposes anyway, there is the late Stella Adler’s approach, which is based on intense studying of the actual script and what actions are called for to bring its meaning, it’s through-line to life.

Each of the three thought he or she had ‘got it right’ in translating Stanislavski for the American stage. Stella – and I’m not being chummy in referring to her by her first name; there are lots of acting Adlers as you will learn – spent months with the old boy himself in the 1930s, taking copious notes before arriving back at the Group Theatre summer retreat and basically bouncing Strasberg off his perch. Meisner stayed out of the front lines of battle, but Stella and Strasberg maintained the sort of snarling relationship that would always make one check a passed goblet for signs of poison. When Strasberg died in 1982, Stella asked for a moment of silence in her class before she commented, ‘It will take a hundred years to repair what that man did to acting.’ One may as well have sent an arrangement of withered nightshade as a funeral bouquet.

Thank the lords of acting and writing that Sheana Ochoa has written this biography of one of the greatest broads of the boards of Broadway. (Yes, I hang my head in shame for political incorrectness.) Professionally, her life is a record of several great eras of the American theatre. Her father, Jacob Adler was likely the predominant figure of the Yiddish/Hebrew Theatre that played to houses of 2,000 a night during that genre’s heyday in the late 1800s. It was also very much the family business. Stella made her stage debut at the age of three and, along with her brothers and sisters, born of several wives one might add, maintained a significant acting presence all their lives.

When the acting style began to change from, shall we say Sarah Bernhardt-like histrionics to a more natural mode of presentation, was with the founding of the Stanislvski-acolyte Group in 1930. Both Stella and her brother Luther were present at the creation, with Stella’s presence a direct result of her long-running and completely unfaithful relationship with the Group’s co-founder Harold Clurman.

Clurman has always been one of my favourite figures in stage history. As a director, reviewer, and all-around theatre thinker, I can think of no one whose work I admire more. He had a specific artistic vision of a truly American Theatre, and for the better part, he achieved it. In terms of personal happiness, he was not quite as successful.

Stella! does not cast judgment on its subject, but Ochoa lays out the case for both prosecution and defense well enough that I don’t mind doing it. Clurman and Stella were not terribly unlike Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. In the case of the latter couple, the famous descriptive phrase was, ‘He gave her class, she gave him sex.’ Well, Stella had class going in. The Adlers were just as much a theatrical royal family as the Barrymores, and Stella was raised as a privileged child who had nothing in common with the non-Adler children her age. Yet, sic transit gloria mundi. The Hebrew Theatre began retreating like a declining lake bed, and what is an actress to do? The answer is that she needed Clurman, along with Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford the other Group founders, to make a success of their venture in order for her to have a place to do the only work she knew how to do. Thus, a relationship.

Stella Adler was very much in love with Stella Adler, yet who could blame her? She was tall for her time, five-eight, blonde, and with a knockout figure. Men rather like that and she rather liked them liking it. She was often unfaithful to Clurman (he had his moments too, it must be said) and rather resented her daughter from her previous marriage when young Ellen grew into a darker, yet rivalrous beauty to Stella.

My other suspicion after finishing – and thoroughly enjoying – Stella! is that she became a great acting teacher not just to make ends meet in her Park Avenue world, but in order to play before her classes the parts that she felt she should have played as a stage or movie actress. For this is the irony of her career, and also those of Strasberg and Meisner. If all we had to go by in assessing their impact was the list of their performances, attention would not be paid. Stella had good to excellent notices in several plays, most notably John Howard Lawson’s “Success Story,” yet that all faded out by the end of the 1930s. As for Hollywood, she made a few movies under the rather clunky name of Stella Ardler, with “Shadow of the Thin Man” being the only one you are likely to run across on TCM some late night. Actually, that tells you all you need to know. If Stella had arrived in Hollywood with a star name, Hollywood never would have asked her to change it.

And yet, her name still lives and it is deserved that life for her greatness as a teacher. Marlon Brando often played fast and loose with the story of his own life, but he did say that if there were not a Stella there might not have been a him to be heard of. Robert DeNiro took her classes for decades, even though he was never one of her teacher’s pets; and the names of Martin Sheen, Sidney Lumet, and Peter Bogdnaovich attest to her mastery. Script first; the play’s the thing. And from the quotes Ochoa uses where Stella analyzes a play, a scene, a character, she deserves all the encore curtain calls she can possibly get. This is a must-read biography for lovers of acting and theatre in general.

Be seeing you.

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Star Count 5/5
Format Hard
Page Count 320 pages
Publisher Applause Theatre & Cinema
Publish Date 2014-Apr-22
ISBN 9781480355538 Buy this Book
Issue May 2014
Category Music & Movies


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