Stewart Stern Remembered

Skerritt, Me, Stern.jpg
Stewart Stern was never on Twitter. He was incapable of expressing a sentiment simply, certainly not within 140 characters. Stewart loved texture and complexity and humanity. He believed in being right, in being true, in being artful. His Emmy® (SYBIL) and his pair of Oscar® nominations (TERESA and RACHEL, RACHEL) are testaments to his talent, his commitment to just, compassionate storytelling. While Stewart will probably be best remembered for his script for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, I’ll remember him most for… his research.

Stewart was a perfectionist, a man who would leave nothing to chance, most especially not the documentation of an idea, a feeling, a fleeting thought. His notes for a project were almost as voluminous as the praise he received for his finished works and from his ever-expanding circle of devotees — from aspiring to established filmmakers at the Sundance Institute, the University of Washington and at TheFilmSchool in Seattle, of which Stewart was a founding faculty member along with Tom Skerritt, Rick Stevenson and myself. Stewart’s notes were precious to him and he guarded them tenaciously, ever vigilant, convinced someone would steal his findings and, in so doing, steal another’s soul. His early recordings of the actual “Sybil” serve as a testament to his relentless search for the Truth.

More than a screenwriter, more than an educator, Stewart was a poet — a man hell-bent on capturing all the beauty of an individual or an individual moment in its complete and utter glory, if not the fewest words. That’s what all the research was for, so that he would never make a mistake. So that he would always honor the individual, whether multiple personality or movie star.

Stewart’s dear friend and colleague Tom Skerritt explains: “Stewart had a spell about him. He taught his last years at TheFilmSchool, giving students a sense of self-worth and ownership in themselves and the stories they carry. From his youth, Stewart maintained that he was Peter Pan sprinkling the dust of a better life for all.”

And sprinkle he did. Yet despite critical praise and innumerable, oft-referenced friendships (count the legends: James Dean, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and, my personal favorite, Roddy McDowall), Stewart was insecure. Yes, the man who had fought, killed and survived the Battle of the Bulge, and won critical acclaim in Hollywood, had commitment issues — mostly with words on the page, but also with the spoken word. He meticulously drafted his lectures and copy-edited his correspondence, fearful of the listener’s or the reader’s disapproval. It’s no coincidence that Stewart scripted James Dean’s rebellious Jim Stark to grieve:

“If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt I belonged someplace. You know?”

This citation may not be entirely autobiographical, but its essence is. Stewart suffered: at times, he felt confused and ashamed. That is why he embodied an external confidence and an internal self-doubt I always found endearing. While others were quick to canonize him — an honor well-deserved — I was fascinated by the more, not mere, mortal Stewart whose insecurity, seeded in childhood trauma and festered in combat horrors, plagued him. Stewart endured a PTSD, of sorts; though singular, its triggers were arguably legion. Stewart carted his memorabilia with him to every class, a veritable traveling museum of the Golden Age of Hollywood — clapboards and autographed letters and lobby cards of another era. Within these incredible artifacts, one could sense Stewart’s memento mori, emblematic of the maddening awareness of his own mortality. Perhaps because of this, Stewart was a champion of the underdog, whether a struggling student or a misplaced New Yorker.

When I moved to Seattle, I knew no one. I could not find work. I was unemployable, as there was no work in film or television and, apparently, I was “overqualified” for any of the retail jobs I would have gladly accepted. One day, I saw a listing for the Screenwriters Salon, organized by the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) at the Alibi Room. I figured I should attend, but hesitated. I went. Late. Just a little. (Still on Broadway time, I suppose.) Walking into the cramped downstairs “auditorium,” I took my seat, listened and made note of the errors I perceived. During the post-show talkback, I heard others praise the material, and then, I voiced my own critique. I was brief, yet blistering. I was not well-received. Afterwards, I sensed the convened crowd hated me. F**k. I had blown an opportunity. Little did I know, Stewart was in the audience. The writers were former students of his. Stewart did not know me, nor did he have any investment in doing so, yet he was vociferously supportive of my comments. In effect, he validated me and soon after, I secured a position at SIFF. (Yes, you can now blame Stewart for my being a “pillar” of our regional film community.)

Skerritt simplifies: “When touched by Stewart Stern, you remain touched for life…”

I will always be grateful to Stewart for backing my opinions that day. I will always be grateful to have known the man, for all his flaws and his purities. In our decade+ teaching together, we often compared notes, only to find we had more in common than our students or each other would suspect. Stewart could sting with his own criticism behind the scenes, but he would then apply the soothing balm of his cure-all approval. He could lead others in mindful meditation while struggling mightily to still his own demons. And while some would bemoan his fate, I’d counter that his inner chaos is what made him great. In 140 characters or less:

#StewartStern—lover of life, champion of fools. Award-winning crafter of classics, none greater than his own legend. Godspeed, my friend.


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