Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Today’s subject, Miss Stella Stevens, has had a long, busy career as a sex kitten, a comedienne, a shady lady and a (somehow likeable) shrew. In the Underworld, of course, she reigns supreme for her featured role as ex-prostitute and devoted, but haranguing, wife to Ernest Borgnine in The Poseidon Adventure.

Stevens was born in Mississippi under the name of Estelle Eggleston and was married at age 15, mother to son (Andrew Stevens) by age 16 and divorced at age 17! Defying the odds of someone in her position back in 1956, she went on to attend college at Memphis State, where she took an interest in acting as well as modeling. Her delightfully upturned mouth and curvaceous figure guaranteed attention.

Before long she was picked up by 20th Century Fox, but her tenure there was a brief six months. Fortunately, Paramount gave her a shot and she gained widespread attention for her role in the filmization of the Broadway musical Li’l Abner (as a character called Appassionata Von Climax!)
On the heels of that, in January, 1960, she made quite a splash with a Playboy pictorial feature (and was the centerfold of that issue.) She would do further pictorials in 1965 and 1968 and it’s easy to see why she was popular! Naturally, however, these photo spreads were nowhere near as explicit as what is churned out today.

Stella worked with Bobby Darin in the film Too Late Blues before being assigned to Girls! Girls! Girls! Opposite Elvis Presley. This was a film she did not want to make and the battle over being stuck in it led to some bad blood between her and Paramount (she would sign with Columbia just over a year later.) That's her on his lap. She is one of the few Presley movie girls who has not embraced that distinction and, in fact, claims to have never once watched the movie!

After appearing in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (with Glenn Ford, who she would costar with three times in all), she took on what would be one of her more iconic parts, mostly due to her costar and the fact that the film was later successfully (depending on who you ask) remade. This was The Nutty Professor, starring chief nutcase Jerry Lewis as a nerdy scientist who uses a potion to transform himself in the suave Buddy Love.

Though Stevens was most often used in comedies, such as Advance to the Rear, she occasionally worked in more serious fare such as Synanon, in which she played a drug-addicted mother living in a rehabilitation house. She went red as a clutzy, but sexy, secret agent in the Dean Martin spy film The Silencers, one of his four Matt Helm movies and flung herself into the physical comedy with abandon (but there was a slightly misogynistic bent to some of it which can be off-putting.)

In the little-seen Rage, she looked amazing, sporting the heavy lashes and shoulder length blonde hair shown here (albeit not in a bikini!) Glenn Ford portrayed a man stuck in Mexico and fighting against the clock to survive rabies with Stella as his sidekick. A lot of people, including Eleanor Parker and Bette Davis, had issues with Ford, but Stevens seemed to get on with him all right, though this was their last film together.

Keeping busy in a variety of roles, she played a thoroughly luscious object of Dean Martin's desire in How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (decked out in Moss Mabry clothes and lingerie confections), a former mob moll in Sol Madrid with David McCallum and a forward-thinking nun (!) in the Rosalind Russell comedy Where Angels Go Trouble Follows.

After appearing in The Mad Room, an update of the old chestnut Ladies in Retirement and costarring Shelley Winters, Stevens got one of her most critically acclaimed roles in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Playing a whore (someone really ought to add up how many times she has been cast as a prostitute or some variation!) who pairs up with prospector Jason Robards, she had many sexy and funny moments and was daring enough to do this with precious little, if any, makeup.

Never one to discriminate much over her projects, she wound up in the Spanish-made western A Town Called Hell with Telly Savalas. (This was renamed at one point to A Town Called Bastard. I guess they never got around to the most apt title, "A Town Called Shit.") Next was a role in the Jacqueline Bisset women’s right movie Stand Up and Be Counted and then the film Slaughter, a tough Blaxploitation flick starring Jim Brown. She engaged in some fairly sizzling loves scenes with Brown, especially for 1972, and her look in the film was close to identical to that of the one that came after.

That next film, of course, is The Poseidon Adventure. Considering the roles she had played so often beforehand, producer Irwin Allen probably didn’t have to scratch his head too hard in order to picture Stevens in the role of a policeman’s wife who he had met when repeatedly arresting her for soliciting! She and Ernest Borgnine forged remarkable chemistry in their roles, bridging a 21-year age gap between them and creating a memorable couple.

Stella knew from the start that the bulk of the acting accolades would be heaped on the role of Belle Rosen, stating to her agent, “You know, the fat lady gets a [Oscar] nomination…” However, she brought amazing dimension and amiability to a role that was nothing more than a one-dimensional witch in the source novel. Allen forbad her reading the book for fear that she would somehow be influenced into adopting a similar persona for the film.

Though her character is very tough and never minces words (this is the character who taught me how to cuss!), underneath it all is a deep sense of caring and vulnerability. Stevens brought this out mostly in unspoken sequences in which concern and even remorse are demonstrated between the lines of dialogue.

She won legions of fans over when Gene Hackman told her to take off her dress in order to climb and Borgnine exclaimed that she couldn’t because she had nothing on under it. When Hackman looked to her for confirmation, she replied, “Panties. What else do I need?” Thus, she wore Borgnine’s shirt for the balance of the film. Here she is seen after a notable degree of distressing and dirtying. This is the look that was chosen to represent her figure in the now-defunct Hollywood Wax Museum, though her hair was no longer up by the time of the scene depicted in the display. The wax figure is a remarkable likeness, really, though few people would choose to be sculpted in such a scruffy manner. Borgnine, however, should have sued! Not only is he scary ugly (more so than he ever was in person if you happen to think he’s not a looker), but he also looks like he’s sort of rotting. And what is with that goofy kerchief, which never appeared anywhere in the film, much less around his neck?!

My favorite moments of hers are when she smart mouths Borgnine about the rescue plan and then when she throttles Carol Lynley for screaming and decides to go up the stairwell with Red Buttons rather than risk his drowning (and then screams “Air pockets?”) My favorite shot of her in the film is just after the capsizing when it’s not immediately clear whether she’s alive or not. She’s lit in a way that gives her a porcelain doll appearance, her famous lips pursed just so.

Having a popular role in a stunning blockbuster like this should have led to great things for Stevens, but she instead became mired down in offbeat, low-budget films, TV movies of little import and outright crap like Las Vegas Lady and Cleopatra Jones and the City of Gold (in which she played a character called Dragon Lady.) This is not to suggest that she didn’t work at lot. Her resume since Poseidon has well over a hundred TV and feature films and multiple TV guest appearances. She also worked in 37 episodes of the short-lived primetime soap Flamingo Road, which starred Mark Harmon and Morgan Fairchild. In 1978, she had a reasonably substantial role as a medium in the Tony Curtis horror fiasco The Manitou in which (preposterously) she was virtually in blackface!

Her son, cutie Andrew Stevens, was directed by her in a good-natured, low-budget comedy called The Ranch and they have appeared together several times, most often in the softcore junk he has turned out in the 1990s (with titles like Illicit Dreams and Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III!) Some of her other “gems” have included Little Devils: The Birth, Phantasmagoria, Bikini Hotel and Hell to Pay. I hope she’s had a good time, anyway.

Even now, she stays busy working (and frequently taking part in Poseidon-related events), but the projects are decidedly low-level in most cases. Though her figure is still rather head-turning for a person in her 70s, she could sorely use a new hairstyle (she’s sported a too-long, fuzzy, blonde ‘do for years now) and a garbage bag for the sometimes garish outfits she favors. Nothing, however, could match her at her peak when she combined that enigmatic face, the full lips, the wave of blonde hair and that curvy bod to send men over the edge.

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