All-American Medea: Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers

All-American Medea: Shirley Stoler in <em>The Honeymoon Killers</em>

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).

In contrast to Penn’s romantic, impossibly good-looking doomed bandits, Kastle wanted to make the lovers-on-the-lam of The Honeymoon Killers as earthbound and unglamorous as their real-life counterparts. Tony Lo Bianco, another man of the stage, who’d cofounded the Triangle Theatre, played Fernandez as a slightly past-prime Spanish-American gigolo with a receding hairline, which in fact is what he was, and Stoler played Beck as purse-lipped and glowering, a big baby convinced that life has snatched her candy, like a live-action Little Lotta. Together they are something like a grotesque parody of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo—Lo Bianco the low-rent Latin lothario who doesn’t mind doing a little fanny-shaking for a thirsty female audience, Stoler the entitled Anglo harridan, forever squalling about being left behind and the unfairness of her lot. Their victims, to whom they introduce themselves as brother and sister, don’t make out much better: a bony schoolteacher warbling “God Bless America” in the bathtub; a nasal-voiced old biddy in Albany; and a tartish faded Southern belle played by Marilyn Chris, later a star of ABC soap One Life to Live but then traveling in the same off-Broadway circles as Stoler, whom she recommended for the Beck part after she failed to secure it herself. The black-and-white images by DP Oliver Wood have the feel of tabloid newsprint, and the film almost looks as though it would smudge to the touch. Like the peripatetic, insatiable Fernandez and Beck, The Honeymoon Killers finds little to admire in the prosperous postwar American scene; looking out the window from the Long Island home in which they stop to play suburbanites, Fernandez contemptuously snarls: “One little jail after another with ten feet of grass between them.”

The Honeymoon Killers wouldn’t be of much interest if it offered nothing but undiluted misanthropy, which is never scarce either overtly, in fringe film, or in a disguised form, in mainstream movies. But Kastle doesn’t show disdain, pity, or hero-worship toward Fernandez and Beck. He instead offers a complex, multifaceted portrayal that makes for a rather more pungent and lingering piece of work, a stain that won’t rub out. Martha is the nearest thing that the film has to an identification character, and as she repeatedly takes pleasure in playing along with Ray’s subterfuges with a secretive smirk, right up until the point when she discovers that the joke’s on her as well, so does the movie encourage a viewer to take pleasure in complicity with this antisocial duo before reminding us of the implications of our coconspirator status. There is a thrill in watching Stoler’s unregulated tantrums: when her Beck first appears, head nurse at a Mobile, Alabama, hospital, she is a vision of puritanical rage, breaking up an illicit tryst in the workplace laboratory before stomping along a suburban sidewalk on her way home, kicking a Radio Flyer wagon out of her path. This is the rage of a woman who feels herself unjustly denied the impassioned clutches and the rug rats that she believes she deserves—unlike the real Beck, Stoler’s character is childless—though emotionally she’s little more than a child herself, entirely without impulse control, scarfing down a Whitman’s sampler box at 10 a.m. because, God damn it, she feels like it.

As soon as Martha is getting a little hanky-panky of her own, however, high-handed censoriousness turns to bitter possessiveness. The defining dynamic between Fernandez and Beck is encapsulated in a scene that occurs shortly before the movie’s midway point, and which possibly contains whatever remains of the contribution made to the movie by Martin Scorsese, who was originally hired as director but was replaced when his approach proved too painstaking for such a fast, loose, and cheap operation. The couple have removed to some sylvan woodlands—the setting is Onota Lake, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, while many of the locations were found in upstate New York—where Ray is staying with a kindly middle-aged woman who runs a boarding house (Barbara Cason), while Martha has been set up at a nearby hotel, an isolation that she bemoans while appreciatively watching Ray do his pushups, looking down on him imperiously from a lawn chair. (Shades of Seven Beauties here . . .) Martha displays what I believe to be one of the finest sullen pouts in film history as Ray goes to frolic in the water with his latest mark; when the two return, Martha tries and fails to leverage her way into Ray’s bed (“Well, I have slept in the same room as my brother before”), then goes out for a swim on her own, very much like a shunned little girl on the playground threatening to take her ball and go home. Ray, nothing if not a walking hard-on, uses the opportunity to canoodle with his hostess, but Martha is wise to what’s going on, letting out a betrayed shriek of “You promised!” before she begins to desperately paddle toward the middle of the lake and sweet oblivion. (Martha has a wide array of head-games for keeping her man in line, the suicide attempt—real or otherwise—being her last resort.) Arriving in deep water, Martha thrashes to stay afloat, buffeted by the waves and by aural flashbacks to an unhappy girlhood, as Ray dives in and slashes through the lake to get to her and haul her to shore. Once he’s done so, “brother” and “sister” let their roles drop and are lovers again, descending into kissing, cooing, and fondling while their hostess, in slow-dawning disgust, bathes her face in the water.

This scene, as you can see below, reminds us that the sexual chemistry between Ray and Martha is very real, even if nothing else they do or say is. Martha’s accusatory “You promised!” contains the full measure of her folly—she is a woman who so much yearns for True Love that she is willing to believe the oath of a man whose entire existence revolves around breaking his word. To the very last, in lockdown in Sing Sing, she continues to cling to her belief in his undying amour, and there is a real pathos in this faith. Though Stoler may never have had her Medea, no better proof of her chops as a tragedian is required than her Martha Beck.

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