Tag Archives: American acting

Stella Stories: Acting and Sex

Stella in "Love on Toast" (1938)

Stella in “Love on Toast” (1938)

Once when Stella was speaking about Lee Strasberg’s fame as a teacher, Stella called attention to the fact that Strasberg was great at publicity. She ventured that had she taught acting with a sexual approach, she would have been just as famous, meaning that sex sells just like Strasberg’s “method” sells. I bring this up because I recently met one Albert Erdynast who was a friend of Stella’s when she was in her early eighties. They had what one might call a loveship, not consummated, but romantic in nature. Erdynast shared the following anecdote with me, which he happened to write in a piece titled “Conversational Interests: Sex Is a Conversation.”

In 1981, Stella Adler, the acting coach, had a dinner in honor of Christopher Isherwood, who had won a Pulitzer Prize. Among the guests at the dinner were Isherwood’s partner, portrait artist Don Bachardy and Chancellor of the California State University Dr. Ann Reynolds. During the dinner talk, Stella Adler who had asked me to accompany her to dinner parties and other events while she was in Los Angeles, turned to me and asked several questions in succession. The entire dinner table had lost temporary interest in whatever it was they were chatting about and gave their attention to our exchanges.

Stella Adler began with, “After these dinner events, Al, do you go home to your wife?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I am not married.” It had not occurred to Stella herself, early in her marriage to Harold Clurman, that she was not supposed to accept dinner invitations alone. Her then mother-in-law pulled her aside one evening to educate her about proper marital etiquette saying, “Stella, when you are married you are not supposed to date.” Astonished, Stella said, “Really?”

Stella then followed with, “When you go home, after these evenings, do you go home to your girlfriend?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I don’t have a girlfriend at this time.”

Stella then asked, “Well then, Al, what do you do for sex?”

I have asked others, since then, how they would answer such a question.

At that occasion, my answer was this: “In those matters, I am of the same persuasion as the two philosophers Immanuel Kant and Mae West. “Work is the ultimate satisfaction and sex is the ultimate distraction.”

Stella received my answer by declaring that her choice was the same. “On my bed in New York,” she said, “I have fifty books instead of a man.”

Since this exchange, Erdynast has asked others how they answered the same question the last time they were asked that question at a formal dinner. How would you respond?
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Method, Script & Action: Holland Taylor on Stella Adler

Holland-TaylorWhile writing Stella Adler’s biography, I interviewed Holland Taylor, but I didn’t videotape our conversation. Thankfully, we have this five minute video, in which Taylor crystallizes Stella’s teachings as accurately as any student of Stella’s I’ve heard. Disciples truly do carry on the work. 

 

Elia Kazan, Stella Adler & Falling for Harold Clurman

ClurmanTheatreToday I made a new friend on Goodreads who noticed I had written a biography on Stella Adler and said she was “interested in learning about her.” I asked if she had ever heard of Stella. Negative. Then I asked if she had heard of Lee Strasberg. Her answer should have been predictable to me at this point in my journey, but I continue to think for some reason that if people outside the theater and entertainment industry don’t know who Stella is they would logically not know who Lee Strasberg is. That is not the case. Her answer: “Yes, absolutely.”

I wanted to ask if she knew who Harold Clurman was, but I already knew that Clurman’s name has fallen into as much obscurity as Stella’s. And yet, Clurman, as much as Stella and Strasberg, influenced modern day theater and cinema, which is best illustrated through his “apprentice” Elia Kazan.

In 1932 twenty-two year old Kazan met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg seeking an apprenticeship in their collective, the Group Theatre, a Depression-era socially-conscious ensemble founded the previous year that would revolutionize American theater. In the interview Kazan rather boldly told Strasberg, the Group’s director, that he wanted his job. Strasberg didn’t like the joke. Still, Kazan would be accepted into the Group and turn out to be one of the most influential directors on both stage and screen of the twentieth century. However, it was Clurman whom Kazan gravitated toward. He would diligently take notes during rehearsals Clurman directed and follow Harold everywhere, studying him. Stella Adler, irked since she was used to that particular kind of adoration, flippantly asked Kazan if he were “queer.”

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Kazan, Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean, 1955

Years later, after Kazan founded the Actors Studio, after he had won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront (which established Marlon Brando as one of the greatest actors of his generation); after he had made an icon of the gifted James Dean in his film East of Eden; he wrote that Clurman’s

directorial style was essentially different from Lee’s. He encouraged actors and admired them, instead of confronting them with their inadequacies. . . . He had the culture to know that if you attempt difficult tasks you’re bound to fail as often as not. . . . Harold made me feel that artists are above all other humans, not only in our society but in all of history. I’m not impressed with any other elite, not of money, power, or fame. I got that from Harold.

One cannot write Stella Adler’s biography without also writing Harold’s. They were born the same year, they revered the Yiddish theater, they wanted to build a national theater, they married, and when that union dissolved, they remained life-long friends. And yet, I had no idea what Harold meant to me until I actually had a chance to read the biography after it was completed. This was my reaction: