When I met her, Stella [Adler] was about forty-one, quite tall and very beautiful, with blue eyes, stunning blond hair and a leonine presence, but a woman much disappointed by what life had dealt her. She was a marvelous actress who unfortunately never got a chance to become a great star, and I think this embittered her. A member of one of the great theatrical families of America, she appeared in almost two hundred plays over a span of thirty years, and wanted very much to be a famous peformer. But like many Jewish actors of her era, she faced a cruel and insidious form of anti-Semitism; producers in New York and especially in Hollywood wouldn't hire actors if they "looked Jewish," no matter how good they were.
Hollywood was always a Jewish community; it was started by Jews and to this day is run largely by Jews. But for a long time it was venomously anti-Semitic in a perverse way, especially before the war, when Jewish performers had to disguise their Jewishness if they wanted a job. These actors were frightened, and understandably so. When I was breaking into acting, I constantly heard about agents submitting an actor or actress for a part, taking them to the theater for a reading and afterward hearing the producer say, "Terrific. Thank you very much. We'll call you."
After the actor was gone, the agent would ask, "Well, Al, what did you think?"
"Great," the producer would say, "He was terrific, but he's too Jewish."
If you "looked Jewish," you didn't get a part and couldn't make a living. You had to look like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Paul Muni or Paulette Goddard and change your name. They were Jews, but didn't "look Jewish" and employed the camouflage of non-Jewish names. Hence Julius Garfinkle became John Garfield, Marion Levy became Paulette Goddard, Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson and Muni Weisenfreund became Paul Muni. Later this changed when people like Barbra Streisand said, "I'll be damned if I'm going to change my name. I'm a Jew and I'm proud of it." Now Jews don't have to get their noses operated on to get a job, but Stella was part of a different era. She went to Hollywood, made three movies and changed her last name to "Ardler," [later: Stella Adler] hoping it would help, but she had a sharp, aquiline nose that gave her the "Jewish look." She had it operated on and the result made her look more like a shiksa; but producers still said she looked too Jewish to offer her the kind of jobs her talent deserved and that would have made her a star.
But while Stella never fulfilled her dream, she left an astounding legacy. Virtually all acting in motion pictures today stems from her, and she had an extraordinary effect on the culture of [pg. 81] her time. I don't think audiences realize how much we are in debt to her, to other Jews and to the Russian theater for most performances we see now. The techniques she brought back, to this country and taught others changed acting enormously. First she passed them on to the other members of the Group Theatre, and then to actors like me who became her students. We plied our trade according to the manner and style she taught us, and since American movies dominate the world market, Stella's teachings have influenced actors throughout the world.
Stella always said no one could teach acting, but she could. She had a knack for teaching people about themselves, enabling them to use their emotions and bring out their hidden sensitivity. She also had a gift for communicating her knowledge; she could tell you not only when you were wrong, but why. Her instincts were unerring and extraordinary. If I hit a sour note in a scene, she knew it immediately and said, "No, wait, wait, wait . . . that's wrong!" and then dug into her large reserve of intuitive intelligence to explain why my character would behave in a certain way based on the author's vision.
"Method acting" was a term popularized, bastardized and misused by Lee Strasberg, a man for whom I have little respect, and therefore I hesitate to use it. What Stella taught her students was how to discover the nature of their own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. She taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance.