“Everyone thinks I don’t know that Stella means star,” Stella Adler once told her class. Who was she kidding? After starring on Broadway, being a pioneer of the legendary Group Theatre, making films in Hollywood and becoming one of the preeminent American acting teachers who taught past and present generations from Marlon Brando to Benicio del Toro, no one would doubt Stella’s awareness of her appellation. That same name Brando made famous with his STELLA! yowl in “A Streetcar Named Desire” has been buried in a business where celebrity shines, and just as quickly fades to black – as starless as the Los Angeles night sky.
Thanks to the Stella Adler Academy and Theatres, however, who raised the coffers (yes, all you need is money to get a star on Hollywood Boulevard), Stella’s star has been memorialized among other great talents of film and theatre on the Walk of Fame, right outside the door of the school and three squares up from Lee Strasberg’s, her nemesis.
The ceremony held on August 4, 2006 was a typical summer day in Southern California. The kind of day Stella would scoff at, being a New Yorker. Not a cloud in the sky as the fans gathered around the celebrities and press.
Hollywood’s star honoring began in 1960, not that old of a tradition compared to Stella’s rich beginnings in the Yiddish Theatre that her parents, Jacob and Sara Adler, pioneered in America. While Broadway was playing parlor-room melodramas, Jacob Adler introduced his audiences to Shakespeare and Ibsen. Stella once described her entrance into the world on February 10, 1901 as being “born into a kingdom.” She was the seventh of eight children Jacob sired to populate his troupe of “Acting Adlers.” By the time Stella was nineteen she had performed in over 200 plays and traveled through North and South America and London with the Yiddish Theatre.
The time came when the Yiddish theater, that same institution that offered her family not only a way to earn a living, but a way of life, dwindled into a past Stella never entirely surrendered. She gradually made the transition from the Yiddish stage to Broadway where she was an original member of the renowned Group Theatre. Her performances in such plays as “Awake and Sing” and “Success Story” are part of theatrical legend. In the late 30’s Stella dabbled in Hollywood – forbidden territory for anyone who placed art above commercialism, but Stella wanted to be a movie star.
As a young, beautiful actress, Stella struggled between her artistic principles and her ego. In 1937 Stella played the lead in her first film, “Love on Toast,” and landed a few minor roles in other films, but she did not like the leisure of Hollywood, the waiting for work when she was used to 48-week theatrical seasons.
By far, Stella’s greatest contribution was as a teacher, a teacher in the proper definition of the word: she was a master. The only American teacher to have studied directly with Stanislavski, Stella honed and disseminated her experience and knowledge and devoted her life to reforming the face of acting in America. Stella was able to combine an uncanny interpretive skill of plays with a prowess at communicating with the actor. The playwright Jerome Lawrence once acknowledged that Stella could discover meaning in his plays of which even he was not aware.
In class Stella was volatile and unwavering at one moment and quietly coquettish the next. She gave students accurate criticism without censoring her words. She could just as easily award a student’s performance with “bravo,” and graciously extend her hand as she could accuse him of being a son-of-a-bitch, and how dare he insult her and the tradition of acting with his lack of insight and insignificant ego. Experiencing her class could be awe-inspiring or horrifically intimidating for the young actor exploring his craft. She would tell her classes that “life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”
Above all else, Stella wanted the actor to honor the “size,” as she referred to it, of the play and the playwright. Like her father who had brought Ibsen and Shakespeare to his audiences, Stella impressed the actor with a obligation akin to that of nobility to lift the play to epic proportions. Stella bemoaned the mediocrity of modern society where tradition of any kind – dress, speech, culture – was a rare commodity.
Stella worked directly with the most important directors and playwrights of the 20th century: Stanislavski, Guthrie, Reinhardt, Clurman, Brecht, and the underappreciated, unparalleled, Odets. Robert Brustein, theatre professor at Harvard, wrote that Stella’s understanding of text often exceeded that of most scholars, and resolutely credited her as being the “greatest teacher of acting in America.” Her emphasis on the actor as artist, not merely to interpret or to “play,” but to imagine and create continues to reveal itself by capturing audiences on stages and screens around the world.
After receiving four honorary doctoral degrees, the Jabotinsky Centennial Citation for “long and dedicated service” to helping establish the state of Israel, being entered into Theatre’s Gershwin Hall of Fame, among countless other achievements, Stella would have meekly and proudly received a star on the Walk of Fame. She would have celebrated the dedication in honor of her craft.
Those who knew Stella – her imperious temperament coupled with deference to art, her inexhaustible study and service to acting, her insecurity at never having been acknowledged as an international “star,” – realize the irony of a star for Stella on Hollywood Boulevard: the honor being undoubtedly for her teaching and not her acting so that even posthumously stardom eluded her. But the most ironic of all: Stella’s star’s earthly provinciality (upon the grimy sidewalk) compared to the celestial heights of Stella’s reach.