This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"Stella" is the kind of movie they used to call a tearjerker, and we might as well go ahead and still call it that, because all around me at the sneak preview people were blowing noses and sort of softly catching their breath - you know, the way you do when you're having a great time. It tells a story that is predictable from beginning to end, except that who would have predicted this old story still had so much life in it, or that the actors would fill it with such warmth and sentiment? "Stella" may be corny, but it's got a great big heart.
The basic plot elements are more or less the same as the last time this story was filmed, starring Barbara Stanwyck, in 1937. A poor but plucky mother has a daughter out of wedlock, proudly refuses financial aid from the rich man who is the father, and raises the girl on her own. Mother and daughter love each other, but the day comes when the mother - a former barmaid, now selling cosmetics door to door - realizes that the father and his sophisticated fiancee can give the girl (now college age) the advantages she needs. So the mother gives away her daughter - all but drives her away - and the ending is pure melodrama.
"Audiences came to sneer and stayed to weep," film historian Leslie Halliwell said of the 1937 version. They're likely to do the same thing this time. Every charge you can make against this movie is probably true - it's cornball, manipulative, unlikely, sentimental and shameless. But once the lights go down and the performances begin, none of those things really matter, because this "Stella" has a quality that many more sophisticated films lack: It makes us really care about its characters.
Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado play the mother and daughter as well as I can imagine them being played, with style and life. They don't put on long faces and march through the gloom. Midler must have played around with a lot of walks and a lot of accents - she must have experimented with attitudes and personal styles - before she hit on the right note for Stella. She's a tough broad who, as the movie opens in 1969, tends bar for a living and who has even been known to climb up on the bar when someone plays "The Stripper" on the jukebox. She's not educated, but she's smart and funny, and has a determined, independent attitude toward life.