Steel Mama Inside Self, Actress Discovers
By Judi Tarowsky
July 18, 1977
The Intelligencer Staff
Steel Mama Inside Self, Actress Discovers
By Judi Tarowsky
Shirley Stoler was sitting in the side yard of the George Gecic home in Follansbee, cooling herself with a battery-powered fan which was doing little to dispel the heat that seemed to be rolling across the Ohio River from the Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel plant in Mingo Junction.
She looked as though she had been roused from bed; her own red hair, bolstered with a switch, lay on her shoulders in Brunhilde braids. A calico nightshi[r]t revealed a generous sprinkling of freckles. She had shed a weary plaid bathrobe in the afternoon heat.
Perhaps she had just risen from sleep; at least her role in "The Deer Hunter" had called for her to admit Robert De Niro, a nocturnal visitor, to her home to see her daughter-in-law, played by Rutanya Alda.
Now De Niro and Alda were insided the Gecic home, playing their scenes. Stoler managed to talk sotto voce between cries o[f] "Quiet on the set!" and "Rollit!"
"It's an interesting role for me," Stoler said, lighting one of her incessant cigarettes. "It's a departure from things I have been playing."
Stoler portrays the mother of Steven, played by John Savage.
"Instead of the stoney-faced jailer in 'Seven Beauties,' it's a very expressive, very emotional, breast-beating mother type," she said. "It's a good change."
So it is. In Lina Wurtmuller's "Seven Beauties" Stoler tyrannizes Giancarlo Giannini with her Nazi order to eat, make love...or else. In "The Deer Hunter," Stoler, armed with a stick, shoos her son from a bar in an uproarious scene - the epitome of the widowed mama clinging to the only man she has left.
The swing from Nazi guard to steel town widow - quite a switch - but how does she do it?
"It's kind of an organic process," Stoler says of her role preparation. "I read the script a couple of times, see the character and start to feel it here" - she points to her middle - "it starts to grow inside of me. The growth of the character is an organic result."
Where did Stoler find the milltown persona in her New York City background?
"I have a very powerful imagination. I can relate to whatever I read on a very personal level," she said.
Stoler began her acting career on stage, first in the Fourth Living Theater, in the late Fifties, then in "a lot of off-Broadway." A European theater tour in 1965 resulted in Stoler's staying in Paris where she acted, sang and did film dubbing. She lived in London,Athens and was married for two years in Morocco. "I'm a real gypsy," she said, explaining the split.
Her American theater work once brought her to Pittsburgh for "The Music Man" in the Nixon Theater. Now she is back in the Ohio Valley with "The Deer Hunter."
From all indications it primarily is a man's picture; the story revolves around a group of close friends and their women appear to be supplementary which is the basis of much of the criticism directed at the current crop of male-dominated movies.
"There are more roles for men than women, it is true," Stoler said. "I have to think in terms of roles for women like me. Usually the stereotyped large woman is used for comic relief. By contrast, I'm a dramatic actress and there aren't frequently roles for that - although there seems to be a slight upsurge."
Wurtmuller is the only female director Stoler has worked under. "She screams a lot on the set and generates a tremendous amount of excitement," Stoler said, picking up the beginnings of a green crocheted scraf. "Michael Cimino (writer-director of "The Deer Hunter") is very quiet, very personable."
Bending over her work for a minute, Stoler straightened and said, "I think there will be an increase in female screen-0writers and directors. I certainly hope so.
"I think in recent years it's beginning to occur to women there are these things available to them. That will create more of a swing to female directors," she said. These women will bring no special insight to film, Stoler contends. "A good mind and a good eye are asexual - or should be."
She held up the green scarf to check the progress. "All my friends are getting scarves for Christmas," she chuckled. "I have to do something with my hands" - and indicated the interminable waiting between scenes - "and I can't do embroidery," she said.
"You have to provide yourself with personal recreation when you go on location," Stoler said. "You have to have your own resources." Her gaze lifted across the river. "You known what I love about here? The density of the foliage. So lush. I was wondering how they would live with the air. But you know, New York has no factories and the air is terrible. So I figured it out - it must be the incredible density that the trees flourish with. New York has so few trees."
Once the filming is done locally, the cast and crew will move on to Cleveland for Steven's wedding scene.
"Have I got a gown for the wedding!" Stoler said with relish. "It's a cross between salmon pink and peach, with rhinestones...and it's wonderful. I'm going to look splended," she grinned.
"This is a beautiful script," she said. "It's very well done."
"The ending is open to interpretation," Stoler said. "I think it's ironic but I think it will be interpreted in many ways, depending on where you come from."
She agreed that the plot could have been set in the framework of other wars besides Vietname "but from what I deduce the atmosphere in Vietnam was, it was more conducive to the behavior in this film," Stoler said of her interpretation.
Stoler declared the cast "wonderful," ticking off the credits and achievements of each. "There seems to be a tremendously good chemistry between them as a group," she said.
And after Cleveland?
"I'm up for two film roles - "The Boys From Brazil" from the Ira Levin novel and a gothic horror film set in South Africa, "The Kids." I play a woman with the mentality of a 12-year-old which I'll just adore," the milltown widow said with some mischief.
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