Monday, July 16, 2007

Barbara Stanwyck - 100th Anniversary

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Barbara Stanwyck. The body of her work is impressive. She was one of the best actresses of her day, sometimes called the greatest actress who never won an Oscar. Granted an honorary Oscar toward the end of her life (at the time she still had yet to perform in the television miniseries “The Thorn Birds” which would garner her a third Emmy), Stanwyck lived a very private life. Orphaned at a young age, learning her trade as a chorus girl in the seamy atmosphere of clubs and vaudeville, the intelligent and intuitive Brooklyn born Ruby Stevens eventually became a hit actress on Broadway, was the highest earning film actress of 1944, and worked well into her 70s on television. Her career spanned many media, and she adjusted to each.

She played an enormous range of roles. No other actress of her day played as many varied types. Few other actresses of her day could lose themselves in a role as she did.

Iconic actress of the period, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford leaped off the screen and commanded attention, and a great deal of publicity when they were off screen. As fine actresses as they were, one rarely can watch their films without being able to forget it is Hepburn or Davis or Crawford. They assumed their roles; they did not lose their own strong personalities in them. Barbara Stanwyck, on the other hand, never played the same person twice. Even her string of fallen women were different from each other.

Phyllis Dietrichson of “Double Indemnity” was nothing like Stella Dallas. The precocious sexpot of “Baby Face” is light-years away from Elizabeth Lane in “Christmas in Connecticut,” who was nothing like Sugarpuss O’Shea in “Ball of Fire.” Miss Stanwyck was lauded by her peers as hardworking and affable, a favorite with directors, but where the intensity came from that shot forth from her as Lulu in “Forbidden” or Florence Fallon in “The Miracle Woman” is still unknown to us. She came to screwball comedy late, but made it her own. Her villains were realistically evil, not cartoons of evil, so much so that they even earned our understanding. She came to westerns late, and that became a favorite genre. She came to television, when as an older woman film parts were more scarce, and made it her medium. She clearly adapted, and learned along the way.

Miss Stanwyck is especially fun to watch in ensemble scenes. She works well with other actors, seeming to enjoy the give and take of the process, where some other stars of the day were more given to posturing and not sharing the spotlight if they could help it. She was quick with a quip, quick on the trigger, and quick to learn.

She appeared different from her peers, even in the way she would handle the smallest scenes. In “Meet John Doe” her younger sisters come upon her working at her typewriter, and wanting her to play with them, tip her chair over and dump her on the floor. One of them attempts a headstand on her abdomen. I’d like to see anybody try that with Joan Crawford. And live.

In “Forbidden” she bathes her toddler, played by Myrna Fresholt (talk about your natural actresses) who continues to babble over Stanwyk’s dialogue, so Stanwyck, with humor and gentleness ad libs her own dialogue to fit what the child is doing. This happens again in the scene in the car with Adolphe Menjou and the child sitting between them, babbling during their tense scene.

Much of “Stella Dallas” is a revelation, and has been discussed on this blog before (see entry May 17, 2007). There is much to discuss about Miss Stanwyck’s work, but none of it can be summed up easily. She was enormously versatile, herself a work in progress. It is hard to imagine anybody else playing the roles she played, and yet, it is irresistible to imagine her in roles that were played by others. Taking nothing away from either Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis who were excellent respectively in “Sunset Blvd.” and “All About Eve,” what would Stanwyck have done with those roles?

She had never been directed by William Wyler. What would it have been like for her, who was one of those best-on-the-first-take actresses, to have worked with “forty-take Wyler?” What kind of partnership would that have been?

This is the conundrum of Barbara Stanwyck’s film career. Even though she opened herself up and showed extraordinary emotional depth, there is the feeling that there is still more, that her personal intensity, and talent for making us believe, is endless. No matter how many times you’ve watched the film.

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