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How Stella Got Her Groove Back is a "woman's picture" - with subtle substance.

By Hadley Hury

AUGUST 24, 1998:  How Stella Got Her Groove Back manages to be both escapist entertainment and an interesting cultural document. The first aspect will bring in the box-office; the latter may serve a creative, as well as a reflective, purpose. As was its enormously successful predecessor Waiting to Exhale, Stella is adapted from a best-selling novel by Terry McMillan, and it is, more than anything, another mass-audience step in the quickly evolving redefinition of black American women.

When I was a very little pitcher with big ears in the mid-1950s, I would sometimes hear my father refer to “a Bette Davis picture” with a tone of resignation and a slight shake of his head. This meant that my mother, whom he adored, had succeeded in wrangling his agreement to a rare evening out, to taking in The Star or The Virgin Queen or A Catered Affair or whatever representative of that shank end of Davis’ career was playing downtown or at our neighborhood theatre. I realize in retrospect that my father actually used his plaintive categorization “a Bette Davis picture” to describe that much broader genre of film we now call, in film history, the woman’s picture. In his thinking the designation simply meant films of emotion and sentiment rather than the sort of movies he enjoyed, and which he took me to on our “boys’ nights out” when my mother hosted her bridge club. (These included the better westerns, like Shane, mysteries, hard-boiled detective stories, the new sci-fi and atomic-age thrillers, and anything starring Jimmy Stewart.) “A Bette Davis picture,” in my father’s vocabulary of film criticism, indicated a cinematic tradition that was as old as the art form itself and which had flourished as a huge phenomenon all through the Depression (Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas), World War II (Davis in Now, Voyager), its aftermath (Joan Crawford and Davis and countless other stars in almost every film they made), and into the ’50s, especially in the sumptuously mounted tearjerkers directed by Douglas Sirk and featuring stars such as Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, and Lana Turner. “A Bette Davis picture,” therefore, for my father, meant any of those glossy melodramas in which a long-suffering heroine spends two hours triumphing over some combination of at least two of the following – (a) failed romance, (b) economic disaster, (c) evil and/or treachery, or (d) a false moral code – in short, any film that made my father squirm in his seat and long for his easy chair and a favorite television show, a book, or the latest copy of Reader’s Digest.

For all its ’90s trappings, the film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back is essentially a reconstituted version of the old cinematic tradition of “the woman’s picture.” The genre has been suspended in a sort of dormancy of cultural confusion for many years. Of course, films are made in every decade and every trend cycle that primarily target female audiences (and, secondarily, the men they can bring with them) but the annual volume of those movies has been in decline since that heyday of the ’50s. It was then that American women last knew that their place was exclusively in the home, or at the five-and-dime counter, or any other venue in which their lives could be validated solely by their relation to the male world and its cash flow, and that the only way to escape these bounds appropriately was to go watch Bette or Joan or Jane or Lana or Susan get some of their own lives back by struggling with predatory men or village gossips or poverty or blindness. (Moms and housewives and shopgirls took heart, too, from the fact that each major female star had to strive toward victory on her own particular feet of clay: Davis – a too-smart-for-her-own-good cynicism; Crawford – a daunting, but also rather pathetic, coldness; Wyman – studied naivete; Hayward – vixenish temper; and Turner – a soft spot for small men in large bodies.) Nonetheless, these girls fought the good fight, and they fought it wearing hairstyles by Guilaroff and gowns by Dior.

The past 30 years, however, have marked an extraordinary passage in the cultural life of American women. As female societal roles have been redefined, so have female roles in American films – though, for the most part, with nowhere near sufficient accuracy, intelligence, or complexity. Hollywood, after all these decades, still doesn’t know what to do with women. Ironically, like the neo-conservatives and far religious rightists whom they consider their natural enemies, Hollywood producers persist in trying to relegate women to one of two categories: saint or whore. In How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the character of Stella (played by Angela Bassett) eludes, with ’90s conviction, this old trap; however, she’s a sort of wish-fulfillment type more than a fully credible, fully developed character. The film’s sensibility seems firmly lodged in the old “woman’s picture” tradition, and that will be its draw as a popular, escapist, entertainment; but it may likely be the iconography (however shallow) of its central character, of her empowerment, that produces the film’s more lasting influence.

Stella is a lovely, 40-year-old, very successful stockbroker, divorced, who shares a lovely home overlooking San Francisco with her lovely 11-year-old son. Her longtime bosom buddy (played by Whoopi Goldberg), who lives in New York, encourages her to see that perhaps she is being consumed by her work and they arrange to meet for a vacation – given over to enjoyment of the senses – in Jamaica. Stella becomes involved with a well-educated, wise for his years, articulate, kind, Jamaican hunk – who happens to be 20 years her junior. The second half of the movie follows them back to San Francisco and the challenges to a possible lifetime commitment.

(Yes, some of you astute cinemaphiles may recognize strong similarities to the plot of the 1955 Douglas Sirk classic All That Heaven Allows, in which suburban widow Jane Wyman takes up, to everyone’s dismay, with much-younger landscaper Rock Hudson.)

Bassett’s performance is thoughtful and appealing; she manages to invest the character more emotional depth than the screenplay (by McMillan and Ron Bass) suggests, and she has an architectonic, camera-friendly beauty. Goldberg is warm and hilarious as Stella’s gadfly, cut-no-slack friend, and Taye Diggs is just fine as the earnest young lover. The film is compromised by director Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s overuse of music-video-type shots approximating soft porn or feminine-hygiene commercials, and by the story’s supporting characters. Stella’s sisters, particularly, are weak foils which seem to exist in the story for no other reason than to provide extremes of middle-class pretensions on the one hand and tedious, sophomoric, four-letter humor on the other.

The subversive success of the film is that, in the seductive form of an escapist fairy tale – specifically, Sleeping Beauty (who, in this ’90s update, must be awakened from lucrative but deadening workaholicism) – audiences will see a strong, smart, black woman making informed and independent choices about her profession, her priorities, her pleasure, and her men.

The Avengers

It’s bad enough when Hollywood execs waste time, energy, and money in the interest of inferior products, but it’s worse when they also squander good talent in their hellish bargains. Watching the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Sean Connery, Eileen Atkins, and Fiona Shaw pinned and wriggling on the stone cold wall of The Avengers is enough to make one’s flesh crawl. (Even Uma Thurman, on whom the “acting jury” is still out, garners some sympathy.)

The important thing to remember in such dire cases, of course, is that while these fine actors at least got big paychecks for wasting their time with such an embarrassment and will emerge from the experience unscathed, the same may not be true for filmgoers. I, for one, am having trouble living with myself for having sat through the entire 95 minutes of this sorry excuse for a movie.

This big-screen reincarnation of the late-’60s television series is lacking the style and wit fundamental to its raison d’etre; the script by Don McPherson is utterly without form; the action sequences are amateurishly choreographed; and the special effects are likely to insult the intelligence of any 10-year-old.

Is there anything at all good to say about The Avengers? Perhaps. Seeing what the brilliant Fiennes – best known for his dramatic work – can do with comedy in which there is no comedy (nor much of anything else) to play, may encourage some casting directors to give him a juicy comic opportunity that will really make us smile.

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