If Shirley Stoler shows up in something you’re watching, chances are at the very least it’s not going to be boring—and she shows up in the damndest places, impossible to ignore when she shoulders her way on-screen. There she is, for example, dubbed into Italian to play the zaftig commandant in a German concentration camp in Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975), where she’s serviced by prisoner Giancarlo Giannini. And as nasty neighbor Mrs. Steve on the television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a toxic character axed after the first season in 1986, apparently because Stoler so rubbed Paul Reubens the wrong way. And in Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990), of which little more needs be said than it’s titled Frankenhooker. And as the pawnshop proprietress who whacks off Alec Baldwin’s digits in Miami Blues (1990), George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s blackly comic detective novel, in which her casting, per Armitage, was a homage to her breakthrough role in The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Leonard Kastle’s road trip through an all-American hellscape.
The eldest of four children born to Polish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1929, Stoler wanted to act from an early age, but she was five-foot-seven and north of two hundred pounds in her mid-twenties, and at that time the only model for mainstream success that an actress of such proportions could look to was, perhaps, the comedienne Totie Fields. Stoler wasn’t interested in doing shtick, however—she was a tragedian at heart, and her build limited her options: “Weight shouldn’t be a hindrance, but casting people are afraid of it,” she would later tell an interviewer. “I could play Medea, but they wouldn’t cast me for it.” Denied Broadway early on—she finally made her debut in 1981 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, playing the title character’s mother in Edward Albee’s ill-fated adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita—Stoler went underground instead. She would become a fixture at New York’s most out-there, off-off-Broadway venues, including the pioneering Living Theatre, where she is recorded as appearing in a 1955 production of Paul Goodman’s The Young Disciple. From here her career path leads through Joseph Cino’s Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, into which she wandered on Christmas Eve of 1959, appearing there in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real and Talk to Me Like the Rain, and the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the Lower East Side.
Kastle, like Stoler, came to film from the theater world—he was a librettist of some reputation, which explains the persistent presence of Mahler in what otherwise seems like a grotty exploitation movie. When Firing Line producer Warren Steibel, with whom Kastle cohabited, received a windfall of cash dumped into his lap by an acquaintance with the instructions to make an independent film, Kastle, with his stage experience, was brought on board to steer the project. The screenplay that Kastle cooked up was inspired by the antics of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who were convicted of three murders and suspected of oh so many more in a spree lasting from 1947 to 1949, their victims encountered through the same “lonely hearts” services that first brought Fernandez and Beck together. Kastle traveled to the Bronx County Courthouse to consult trial records while writing his script, its stated antimodel being Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which can likewise be found behind both Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973).
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