Shortly after Stewart Stern passed away on February 2 at the age of 92 in Seattle’s Swedish hospital (where, incidentally, I was born), I received a request to share a memory of Mr. Stern with The Hollywood Reporter. The most interesting thing I could recall was Stern telling me that “Rebel Without a Cause” was his version of Peter Pan, with James Dean as Peter, Natalie Wood as Wendy, and Sal Mineo representing all the lost boys. The next day, I read the obituary, which claimed this bit of information was given to The Hollywood Reporter by Stern himself. Such is the nature of so many rushed obituaries, bits and pieces of a person’s life recalled from various unidentified sources and cobbled together by a staff writer.
It should be obvious to anyone who has seen “Rebel Without a Cause” that Stewart’s retelling of “Peter Pan” did not make it to the screen intact. Elements remain, and the analogies are justified, but director Nicholas Ray had little interest in this aspect of the script’s subtext. Such is the situation of the Hollywood writer. There are too many people standing between the script and what winds up on the screen. “Rebel Without a Cause” may be Stern’s most famous work, but it is Ray’s picture, not his, and so cannot be said to be the best representation of Stern’s screenwriting.
That would be the 1968 drama, “Rachel, Rachel,” starring Joanne Woodward and directed by her husband Paul Newman. It is a character study of a 35 year-old virgin’s first requited love affair, and the impact it has on freeing her from a repressed existence. Stern does a brilliant job of capturing the many psychological layers of Rachel’s interior life through quick flashbacks that are seamlessly sewn into the present tense narrative.
He used a similar technique in his Emmy-winning script for the 1976 television adaptation of “Sybil.” So many films that incorporate flashbacks fall into a confusion of time and place, but Stern never loses the narrative thread, and the flash cuts serve to enhance, not obscure, both Rachel’s and Sybil’s subjective reactions to immediate phenomena.
My personal favorite is his transformation of Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s 1958 political novel “The Ugly American” into a vehicle for Marlon Brando in 1963. This was a film about the Vietnam war made before most citizens of the United States had even heard of Vietnam. Although the film bore little resemblance to the novel, Stern managed to dramatize North Vietnam’s manipulation of the radical elements within the South Vietnam government through developing conflicts between a US ambassador and the revolutionary leader who was once his friend. “The Ugly American” stands alongside “The Manchurian Candidate” as one of the few intelligent political thrillers of the Kennedy era.
Predating “The Manchurian Candidate” was Stern’s 1956 expansion of Rod Serling’s “The Rack,” a 1955 television drama about a decorated war hero’s court martial for collaboration with the enemy after suffering psychological torture in a Korean prisoner of war camp, into a feature film starring Paul Newman. What was most apparent in Stern’s script was his sensitivity and skill in writing dialog that was both actor-friendly and actor proof. The films made from Stern’s screenplay’s have one thing in common, memorable performances, reminding us that it takes more than just a great actor to create a great performance. It also requires an excellent script. And Stewart Stern wrote some of the best. It is to the detriment of history that more of them were not produced.