October 13, 2019

Stella Adler: the methods of a legend

Dustin Hoffman famously tells the story that he prepared for a torture scene in “Marathon Man” by going without sleep for three days so he would look properly spent in front of the camera.

“Next time,” Hoffman’s co-star, Laurence Olivier, advised, “try acting.”

Exactly here we can see a generational clash between the traditional acting style of an earlier era and “method” acting, a phenomenon that is explored in intimate detail by theater writer Sheana Ochoa in “Stella! Mother of Modern Acting” (Applause). Although the life story of legendary acting instructor Stella Adler is a saga worthy of the screen, full of color and conflict, Adler is best remembered for having trained and inspired several generations of acting luminaries, including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Benicio del Toro.

“Although ultimately what she was after was an honest, naturalistic style of acting, her love of the big ideas of the playwrights and her keen sense of social justice drove that naturalism toward nobility,” actor Mark Ruffalo writes in his foreword to “Stella!” “Her high ideals and devotion to the greatest and most noble assertion of her acting technique made Stella Adler one of the most influential acting teachers and theater personalities of modern times.”

Adler was born in 1901 into the aristocracy of the Yiddish theater in New York City — her mother was leading lady Sara Adler and her father was Jacob Adler, a legend of the Yiddish stage. She soon followed her three older sisters onto the stage as one of the “Acting Adlers.” It was a fateful start: “Small wonder Stella spent the rest of her life, as most people described it, ‘always onstage,’ ” Ochoa writes.

Growing up on the Yiddish stage shaped Stella Adler, not only as an actress but as an advocate for social justice. “During the Yiddish theater’s heyday, while Broadway was still showcasing farcical operettas and Victorian melodrama, the plays downtown highlighted current events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Mendel Beilis trial, and political matters,” the author explains, “dramatizing the issue of birth control in The Great Question while women’s rights were debated in Gordin’s play, Sappho.”

The defining moment in Adler’s life, however, came soon after she appeared in the “legitimate” theater with a role in a Broadway play in 1922. That season also saw the performance of a series of Chekhov plays by the Moscow Art Theater from Bolshevik Russia under the celebrated director Constantin Stanislavski, who was famous for bringing a new style of “intense psychological realism” to the stage. “His approach, which coincided with the era in which Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis took hold, examined the psychological and emotional life of the actor,” Ochoa writes.

Adler — along with Lee Strasberg, who was to become her great rival in the interpretation of the Stanislavski method — studied at the American Laboratory Theatre in New York, the seedbed of method acting in the United States, and she later joined him in the storied Group Theatre. She traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 to “rekindle her love of acting” by making a pilgrimage to the place where the Stanislavski system was invented and stopping in Paris on the way back to meet the great man himself. What she saw set her afire: “For four years I have lived, theatrically speaking, in Strasberg’s shadow,” Adler later recalled. “The variety of Soviet theater styles help me find myself….” Upon her return to America, she reinvented herself as an acting teacher.

Ochoa does not neglect Adler’s intense and complicated romantic life: “I was not a conscious flirt,” she quotes Adler as saying. “I didn’t know I was flirting all the time.” Her lovers, at least according to one account, included young Brando, even though she was married at the time to Harold Clurman, founder and director of the Group Theatre.

We also glimpse some of the dirty little secrets of an acting career in the 1930s and ’40s. Adler, for example, “went in for rhinoplasty,” which earned a sly compliment from director Elia Kazan: “The new nose is a huge success.” She was pressured to change her name, so famous among Jewish audiences, on the credits of a movie called “Love on Toast.” “What do you want me to call myself, Beverly Wilshire?” she retorted, referring to the hotel where she stayed during the production. She finally consented to using the last name “Ardler.”  “The whole thing became a comedy,” Adler later recalled. “And it took Auschwitz to change that.”

In fact, it was the Holocaust that prompted Adler to change her own political stripes by allying herself with the Irgun, not only as an activist and publicist during the war but also on undercover missions to smuggle weapons to Palestine and to assist survivors in leaving the post-Holocaust displaced persons camps. “Stella’s dedication to freedom fighting … had gone from socialism to Marxism to revisionist Zionism in the course of two decades.” Yet she was also a victim of the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era, a twist of fate that serves as one of the reasons she devoted herself to teaching rather than performing. “Like all artists,” the author writes, “she had to make a living.”

As it happened, making a living by mentoring young actors turned Adler into a legendary figure of enduring importance in American theater and film. Thanks to the artistry and scholarship of Ochoa, however, she is even more fascinating as a woman of flesh and blood.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.