Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern is a revealing portrait of a Hollywood legend with the soul and sensitivity of a poet. For over a quarter-century, Stern had one of the most prolific writing careers in Hollywood, penning films including Rebel Without a Cause, Rachel, Rachel, and Sybil; in 1983, at the pinnacle of his career, he abruptly left Hollywood for good and moved to the Pacific Northwest.
Stern’s longtime friend, Paul Newman, says of Stern’s retreat from Hollywood, "Stewart just ran out of wonderful determination…he just ran out of stink."
Through intimate conversations with Stern about his troubled childhood and his prolific career, and interviews with a parade of Stern’s celebrity friends, including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sally Field, Dennis Hopper, Delbert Mann, and George Englund, director Jon Ward unfolds the story of a lonely, sensitive boy who grew up surrounded by wealth and fame, but felt more loved and nurtured by farm animals than by his own parents. Stern, who survived the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two, later became a screenwriter - without the help of his uncle, Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount - and worked with some of the most famous names in Hollywood.
Going Through Splat gives the viewer an intimate look at the life events that helped shape the man Stern became. Stern grew up in New York, the first-born child of Dr. Emanuel "Manny" Stern and his wife Frances. He and his sister Marjorie spent a good deal of their childhoods at Mountain View Farm near Nyack, New York, which was owned by his wealthy Uncle Adolph. Stern grew up around people like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, but his childhood was far from idyllic.
Pictures of Stern as an infant show a baby with solemn brown eyes, staring deeply into the camera. In a voiceover, Stern tells Ward about his sister Marjorie, who was born when he was three. Marjorie was born with rickets, and she was also a "breath holder" – she would forget to breathe – and so she was showered with the attention that young Stewart didn’t receive. Stern recalls how he would make paintings and drawings and clay sculptures for his parents, and how they loved his work and exclaimed over it.
"I got the celebrity, but not the….not the other," Stern recalls wistfully. "Marjorie got the other, but not the celebrity."
Stern’s life was forever set on a particular course by a couple of monumental events. His mother, a theater lover who had yearned to be an actress herself, took him to see Eva Le Gallienne in the role of Peter Pan when he was 8 years old. Seeing Le Gallienne soar above the audience, flying free, Stern fell in love with the story of Peter Pan, and his whole career was shaped by that moment.
His mother took him to see the play at nearly every Saturday matinee, and he got to know Le Gallienne personally – she would let him hold her Peter Pan hat after the show. His mother made him a Peter Pan costume, and Ward shows us a photograph of young Stewart in his Peter Pan garb, high up in a tree, with a favorite female cousin perched next to him in a nightgown, playing the role of Wendy. Stern would forever identify with the story of Peter Pan, the boy who soared free above the crowd; the eternal youth who couldn’t remember his childhood, and didn’t remember his absent mother, or care that she was lost.
When he was 12, Stern first saw actress Beatrice Lillie perform on Broadway, and he was captivated by the way she could control the audience with a single deadpan look. He later befriended Lillie, and she became one of the people who would shape his life. Although his mother took him to the theater, and gave him praise for his artwork, she never gave him the love he craved.
His teachers and schoolmates at The Fieldston School became his extended family. "This is where my life was lived," he reminisces in the film as he and Ward walk through the school. He recalls "just crying my heart out after graduation", and not being able to imagine a life beyond the school. His high school yearbook quote says prophetically about him, "He fills his pallet with the colors of life and now takes up his brush".
After high school, Stern served his country in World War Two, surviving the Battle of the Bulge, where 19,000 of his fellow American soldiers were killed. Stern talks of finally getting to a hospital in New York after the Battle of the Bulge, to be treated for "trench foot". His parents didn't know if he was dead or alive, he had been listed as "MIA", and at the hospital he finally had the chance to call them. As he was standing in line for the phone, his parents walked in and saw him. Stern pauses emotionally, tearing up, and notes, "My mother saw me standing there, and she started to cry. That's the...only time I ever saw her cry".
He was forever changed by his war experiences, and channeled some of them into his first film, Teresa, written in 1950.
In spite of his show business family, Stern didn’t get much of a leg up into Hollywood. He first went into acting, making his Broadway debut in 1946 in The French Touch, and then decided he wanted to go to Hollywood. His Uncle Adolph didn’t help Stern break into Hollywood. It was, at last, his beloved cousin and childhood friend, Arthur Loew, Jr., who remembered a childhood promise that they would live together and help each other as adults, who helped Stern get his career off the ground. Loew helped Stern break into the business, and they worked together and remained close the rest of their adult lives.
"He did everything in the world to foster my career," Stern recalls fondly.
Stern’s career as a writer began when his cousin Arthur stole two of Stern’s short stories out of his desk and gave them to Fred Zinnemann at MGM. Zinnemann was duly impressed, and became Stern’s mentor; the two worked together on Teresa, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Story, and the documentary Benjy, which Stern worked on and cast for Zinnemann. Teresa didn’t win that year, but Benjy did; when Zinnemann went up to give his acceptance speech, Stern waited with bated breath to hear Zinnemann, his mentor, say his name. Zinnemann made no reference to Stern at all, and Stern was crushed.
In 1955 Stern worked with Newman, who would become a lifetime friend, in his first major film, The Rack. In the film, Newman’s character prays, "If this loneliness can kill me, let it kill me now".
"I used to pray that too," Stern recalls.
It was his friendship with James Dean, and the screenplay he wrote for Rebel Without A Cause, though, for which Stern would be best well known. When Stern and Dean met, Stern recalls, "We were sitting there, just the two of us, and Jimmy started mooing like a cow. We went back and forth mooing." This serendipitous start to Stern’s friendship with Dean was later worked into the Planetarium scene from Rebel, when Dean’s character Jim Stark moos at the constellation of Taurus, hoping to impress the cool kids.
Stern speaks fondly of Rebel, "The character of Jim Stark was fearless. I had been Plato (Sal Mineo’s character) most of my life with some Jim Stark." He speaks of waiting for some "Peter Pan who could pull me into the night, teach me to fly and just get away from all that." Stern speaks wistfully of wishing to go up again and be safe, be out of reach. "It didn’t matter if I had lost my mother, as Peter lost his. Not to remember, just to forget everything painful…"
Stern notes that the mansion scene in Rebel is pure Peter Pan straight through. "Jim Stark is Peter, Judy (Natalie Wood) is Wendy and Plato (Mineo) represents all the Lost Boys." The mansion is Neverland, Stern notes, and "in the middle of the night, ‘Captain Hook’ shows up swinging a chain."
Director Nicholas Ray was nominated for an Academy Award for the original story for Rebel Without a Cause. Although he did receive credit for the screenplay, Stern felt that original story credit should have been shared by Ray, Irving Shulman, and himself, because the screenplay the film was actually shot from varied so greatly from the notes Ray called the "original story". Stern appealed to Ray to include him in the story credits, but Ray never relented.
In 1963, Stern wrote the screen story for The Ugly American, starring Marlon Brando. Stern, director George Englund and Brando had taken a trip through Asia to do research. Before they started shooting The Ugly American, Stern, Englund and Brando had a hallway encounter in Washington, D.C. with then–senator John F. Kennedy, who asked them about their plans for the film. When they told Kennedy they were waiting for the right weather to start shooting, he asked, "Political weather? Or ‘weather’ weather?" "Weather-weather," they replied. Kennedy then went on to tell them that the movie needed to be made, that it had an important message.
At the end of The Ugly American, Brando is on the stand talking about his experience, and says he has something important to say, something every American needs to hear. Stern wrote the script with the shot panning out to show that Brando was talking on a television screen, with a guy sitting in a chair, watching. Just as Brando starts to say what’s so important, the guy gets up and switches his television to a shoot ‘em up western. Stern sees the film as still relevant today.
"Nobody gives a shit what’s happening across the street, much less Rwanda. We haven’t learned a thing."
In 1968, Newman and Woodward hired Stern to write the screenplay for Newman’s directorial debut, Rachel, Rachel. Woodward still regards her title role in that film as the best role that’s ever been written for her.
Stern remains highly regarded as a writer among his Hollywood friends. Sally Field, who played the title role in Sybil, says of Stern, "It’s literature, Stewart’s writing. It should be published." Joanne Woodward, who starred opposite Field, says of the Stern’s adaptation of the book, "The book was interesting, but fairly mundane…he created magic with it."
But even as Stern was accepting his Emmy for the Sybil screenplay, he was facing his own demons; anxiety, insecurity, and a crippling case of "writing panic" as he tried to write the sequel to Rachel, Rachel. He had also been crushed by a couple of scripts he considered to be some of his best work not getting made into films. His sensitive nature made him ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities of working in Hollywood.
Dennis Hopper sums it up thusly: "If it’s not gonna be made, what the fuck is the point of writing it?"
Stern finally hit the wall with the death of his beloved sister, Marjorie. He put a part of the notebook in which he had been trying to write Rachel II into Marjorie’s casket, and symbolically buried his writing career along with his sister.
The title of the documentary comes from a story Stern tells about a comic panel he once saw. A woman comes up to a wizard and says, "Whither?" "Thither," the wizard replies, pointing. The woman starts to head "thither", and the next panel shows a big "SPLAT". She comes back to the wizard, muddy and disheveled, and asks the wizard again how to get to "thither". The wizard tells her, "To reach thither, you have to go through SPLAT".
That pretty much sums up Stern’s philosophy in a nutshell. "Our lives are made of ‘splats’," he muses, "and our personalities are shaped by the way we go through "splat". Stewart Stern has been through "splat" and then some, and come out the other side a stronger person.
Nick Ray never apologized to Stern for not giving him credit for Rebel Without a Cause, but his mentor Fred Zinnemann publicly apologized to Stern 16 years later.
Ward notes at the end of the film that he started out looking to make a movie about why Stern stopped writing, but instead realized why Stern wrote in the first place was a more interesting story. These days, Stern devotes his still-considerable energies to mentoring younger writers, teaching a screenwriting class at the University of Washington, and caring for animals. He has been married to wife Marilee for 25 years. He volunteers weekly at Woodland Park Zoo, and regularly visits Bert and Ernie, two Dexter cattle he helped find a home at a farm for disadvantaged children.
"I’m no longer Peter Pan, no longer longing to be in Peter Pan," Stern says. The writer with the sensitive soul seems, perhaps as much as he ever has, to be a man finally at peace.