Her homely, pudding face was Laughtonesque in style, incapable of warmth much less a smile. It was held up by an immense frame that was both intimidating and foreboding at the same time. In return, it allowed her to play a couple of the most loathsome and terrifying women ever presented onscreen.
Born to Polish-Jewish immigrants on March 30, 1929, Brooklyn’s Shirley Stoler made her stage debut in 1955 and gained experience as a member of New York’s experimental La Mama and Living Theatre companies. She had become a key underground player by the time she earned film infamy in 1970 at age 41.
Her very first portrayal on film was as real-life homicidal maniac Martha Beck in the stark, chilling, shoestring-budgeted flick The Honeymoon Killers (1970). Paired up with ‘Tony Lo Bianco”s slick, handsome Raymond Fernandez, the two created a brazen pair of “Lonelyhearts” serial killers that are still talked about in cult circles. Going this far out on a limb, Shirley would find the going rough after this and Martha Beck a hard act to follow.
And then as if nothing could out-creep her above-mentioned role, she went on to play, with utmost horror, the repulsive, whip-carrying concentration camp commandant in Lina Wertmüller’s WWII masterpiece Seven Beauties (1975) [Seven Beauties]. Stoler’s reviling, seductive byplay with Giancarlo Giannini’s terrified inmate, whose measly life is left in her hands, remains one of the most harrowing and fascinating scenes ever filmed. For the duration of her career, however, Shirley was obliquely cast as either Eastern European housewives or hardened “tough broad” types (prostitutes, bartenders, bordello madams, prison matrons).
Too often featured in low budgets unworthy of her talents, her minor gallery of grotesques included the prison guard in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Spike the Bartender in Frankenhooker (1990), and the pawnshop store owner in Miami Blues (1990)_ in which she chops con man Alec Baldwin’s fingers off with a machete. Occasionally she was given a more humane part, such as her brief role as the grief-stricken Vietnam-war mom in the high quality Oscar winner The Deer Hunter (1978), but, for the most part, it was her monstrous tendencies that paid dividends.
Elsewhere, she made her Broadway debut at age 52 in a production of “Lolita” starring Donald Sutherland as Humbert Humbert and Blanche Baker as the nymphet, but the show closed nine days later. On TV Shirley made occasional guest appearances and was a short-lived regular on both daytime and nighttime drama while offering comedic (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”) and dramatic (“Skag”) support. She died in New York of heart failure at age 69 in 1999.
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