In Stella, Bette Midler looks at the world avidly, as though it were an enormous meal she was about to start consuming with her hands. Her Stella Claire is a rambunctiously declasse single mom who dedicates herself — with a fury bordering on mania — to improving the lot of her beautiful daughter, Jenny (Trini Alvarado). What she doesn’t count on is the reemergence of Dad (Stephen Collins), a posh preppie she threw over after she got pregnant. Stella is meant to be a shameless, innocent vulgarian. In this movie, though, vulgarity is no simple matter. It’s…well, larger-than-life.
Midler’s Stella can’t be in a room for two minutes without exposing the fullness of her tawdry soul. If she isn’t dropping wide-eyed descriptions of the latest National Enquirer story, she’s breathless about the new party dress she’s just made for Jenny — the one that looks as if it were fashioned from a pink shower curtain. For employment, Stella sells cosmetics door-to-door. Before that, she tended bar in a working-class dive, entertaining the men with (fully clothed) mock strip teases. The lowness of it all!
Midler has always been the most quick-witted of actresses. But in Stella, vulgarity comes close to being a form of mental defectiveness. Midler speaks in an outsize nasal twang and parades around in outfits that look like rejects from the Carmen Miranda Boutique. (The character is so out of it that, to her, they might as well be Coco Chanel.) She goes at her role as if it were a Carol Burnett Show parody of people with bad taste. Her Stella isn’t quite a human being; she’s a monster-movie bawd — the bag lady as life force. I kept expecting Dana Carvey’s John Travolta to pop into the room and say, ”You are so-o-o wee-id!”
She’s wee-id, all right, and so is the movie. The original Stella Dallas is remembered as an ultimate Hollywood tearjerker, but it’s a more bizarre concoction than that. It’s like Cinderella with Edith Bunker as the heroine — a queasily masochistic tale of maternal sacrifice and redemption. Even in 1937, the movie’s view of the cosmic gulf between ”upper” and ”lower” classes was overheated. Transposed to contemporary America, it seems utterly nuts.
Watching Stella, we’re asked to believe: (a) that when a socialite spreads some gossip about Stella, it’s such a scandal no one would even deign to show up at poor Jenny’s birthday party, and (b) that Jenny, having been raised by this exuberantly tacky nut case, has nonetheless inherited her father’s upwardly mobile genes. This is gonzo — it’s like something out of a bad Victorian novel.
As Jenny, Trini Alvarado has a lovely, warm presence (she evokes the young Elizabeth Taylor). Yet the filmmakers, trying to stay true to the deliriously retrograde plot, have her embracing a whitewashed world of preppies and debutantes — as if it were either that or working-class hell. Don’t they realize most of the country now falls somewhere in between? Stella is never dull, but by the time it replays the famous Barbara Stanwyck-in-the-rain scene, it’s jerking camp laughter instead of tears. D+