With unapologetic affection and considerable insight, Jon Ward’s “Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern” illuminates the struggle for creative expression by a sensitive screenwriter who walked away from Hollywood in his prime. It should easily score as a festival favorite and would seem a natural fit for film-friendly cable channels.
An Oscar-nominated scribe (“Rachel, Rachel,” “Teresa”), Stern was related to movie royalty but never reaped the benefits of nepotism. He narrowly escaped death in World War II, palled around with Marlon Brando and James Dean, and penned works of uncommon depth and psychological complexity. Despite a resume including “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Sybil,” Stern suddenly quit when his creative well dried up 20 years ago.
Ward set out to make a documentary about why Stern stopped writing, but what he found was equally, if not more, intriguing — it was what made Stern write in the first place. Ward’s film penetrates those mysteries largely by allowing Stern — still going strong at 82 — to speak for and about himself. It also uses Stern’s written words to explain the man through excerpts from his films. Finally there are candid interviews with an impressive roster of colleagues and friends.
Raised in New York, he was a nephew of Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, who offered no assistance when Stern became a screenwriter. A precociously gifted artist, Stewart added theater to his passions after being enchanted by a performance of “Peter Pan.”
During WWII, Stern fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which took the lives of 19,000 Americans. Stern recounts events of the war in great detail — 500 men from his battalion died — and it’s clear that he emerged from combat forever changed.
As so many of the testimonials — from Dennis Hopper to Paul Newman to Delbert Mann — make clear, Stern is a deeply sensitive, painfully compassionate man whose writing reflected his inner turmoil. It also meant that he trusted too easily, and that he was hurt by a system and a business which didn’t have a lot of room for sensitive souls.
In two cases involving Academy Awards — one for the short doc “Benjy” and the other for “Rebel Without a Cause” — he was denied credit by Fred Zinnemann (who later apologized) for the former and Nicholas Ray (who didn’t) for the latter. In other cases, his scripts were changed almost beyond recognition.
Despite having good reason to be bitter, Stern never seems to be. He went on to receive acclaim and awards, until finally, as his close friend Newman says, “Stewart just ran out of stink.” Stern himself doesn’t have a pat answer as to why. But in the end, solving that riddle is much less compelling than the story of the man himself.