R.I.P. Stella Stevens

My pal John Beifuss writes for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and his tribute to Stella Stevens – a Memphis native (although not born there) – is the one to read. There are so many good anecdotes, all culled from the interviews Stevens did over the years with the Commercial Appeal. Like this:

Stevens was no stranger to strong reactions to public sexiness. In a 1994 interview, she told The Commercial Appeal that her mother tracked her down at a Memphis theater and pulled by her ear from a screening of “The Outlaw,” a 1943 Western with Jane Russell that had been condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its provocative content.

Beifuss ends the piece on an emotionally resonant local note. It’s just a fact that local newspapers do it best, and we lose so much when local newspapers fold.

Another local piece about Stella Stevens, this one from 2019, in Memphis Magazine, by award-winning columnist Vance Lauderdale.

Stevens was one of the “girls” in Elvis’ Girls! Girls! Girls! – there’s just never just one girl, you know. She plays his friend with benefits, his regular go-to girl, a nightclub singer, and she’s … over it. She’s over the whole situation. Stevens did not have a good time making Girls! Girls! Girls!. She hated the part. One can’t really blame her. Still: they look amazing together.

Most tributes I’ve seen lead with The Nutty Professor or Poseidon Adventure, but I’d like to call out her performance in John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1961), his second film, where Stevens – opposite Bobby Darin – is heartbreaking, a revelation, and a prototype for all the great Cassavetes Women who would come later, represented by his muse and wife Gena Rowlands. Stella Stevens was there first. In 2016, m friend Kim Morgan wrote about Too Late Blues for the New Beverly and her words on Stella Stevens were the first things I thought of when I heard the news of Stevens’ passing:

You can also tell that Stella Stevens (who plays Jess) the beleaguered B-girl and singer, has seen some sleazy situations in her time. Fresh off her Playboy 1960 Centerfold and just a few films roles she floats into the picture a petrified beautiful bird, nervously scatting with a seasoned jazz pro and ends it a suicidal wet-haired feral cat, once again singing in her wordless, almost disturbing near incantations. She’s heartbreaking – a broken young woman who has been so used, she can slip from quiet, contemplative junkie (without ever shooting up – her character just oozes opiate addiction and trauma) to drunk and boisterous to runny-eye-makeup, furious good time girl. She’s acting a part when she’s out hooking sliding right into the role men want her to be, but when she’s faced with actually loving someone (in this case, Ghost) she’s an emotional wreck. She’s also so vulnerable that one contemptuous moment from Ghost and she’s gone. She sleeps with his musician friend who is, as she says, bigger than him. She repeats this with emphasis so you get that she doesn’t just mean taller.

And yet, the film never judges her. Cassavetes is so understanding of this kind of woman that the picture feels downright radical in that regard. She’s not just a whore – she’s not even sure what she is – and that’s sad, not ugly. And Ghost (who will become kept himself by a rich woman playing music just for the scratch) well, what right does he have to judge? Ghost may represent the movie’s mixed idealism and egoism of holding onto your vision, but Stevens is its vulnerable center. She’s spinning from one place to another, even a baseball field, with all of these men swirling around her either telling her she’s worth something or distracting her from the purity of not just music (for she can sing) but of her own self. She is so down and depressed that her later, very physical meltdown in a bathroom is so shattering it almost takes you by surprise. We knew she was despondent and yet, she’s so brilliant in this moment, we are genuinely taken aback by just how despondent she really is. As Cassavetes reflected: “I see women in bars, crazy girls who don’t want to be themselves and who don’t want to admit what they are. They’re difficult people. They’re hard to talk to. But to me they’re like a mother; awkward, pretty young girls.” He’d known these women. And, again, Stevens must have, too. She’d likely known these men.

Thank you, Kim. Stevens was labeled a sex symbol, she appeared in Playboy, etc. etc. and this was frustrating for her, since she was an accomplished singer and comedienne. But she also had depth and experience, and of course it would be someone like a just-starting-out John Cassavetes who would think to put her in material like Too Late Blues.

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