Friday, April 27, 2007

Stanwyck scribbling

A few years ago I was in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, researching Katharine Hepburn's life in the Turtle Bay neighborhood for a magazine article. Task completed (there wasn't much, but enough to get 1,500 words from) I found myself with some time to kill before my next appointment, so I decided to research a personal favorite subject, Barbara Stanwyck. There was a bio of her on the shelves, so I cracked it open, only to find that it had two authors.

One was credited. And the other was an anarchist annotator, who with a ballpoint point appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner over the author's findings. "RIDICULOUS" read one scrawl in the margins. "THIS IS COMPLETELY INADEQUATE" was another, with a line drawn to indicate the offending paragraph. Another passage was thickly circled. "SUCH POOR RESEARCH AND WRITING; HOW DOES THE AUTHOR KNOW ANY OF THIS?" it read. And so it went, on every page of the manuscript.

I can only guess at the unknown author's identity. Maybe another, would-be biographer whose project was cancelled when this one got the greenlight? Or perhaps a garden-variety film buff who, like many of us, felt a kinship with Stanwyck, the most un-movie star-ish of movie stars, with an appealingly diverse career, and wanted it gotten right.

Facets of her talent are on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is hosting a centenary film tribute in her honor. Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens, was a Flatbush Avenue girl, and she never really left the neighborhood. Even when living the high life, or roaming the Wild West, there was that tough, New York scrappiness about her. Anthony Lane has much to say about her difficult upbringing and amazing career, stretching from silents in the 20's to Aaron Spelling TV shows in the mid-80's, in this week's
New Yorker. As always with Lane, I'm incredibly tempted to write "OVERWRITTEN; STICK TO THE SUBJECT, FANCY PANTS" in the margins (and "IDIOT!" when he lambastes The Untouchables in his Hot Fuzz review, which is also online) but it's a place to start before heading off to BAM. And you should, because Stanwyck had such a multifaceted resume. I think science fiction was the only genre she didn't attempt, which was just as well, as she would have told any fearsome bug-eyed monster where to get off.

If you can get there tonight a real treat, the complex generation-spanning noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), is playing. Stanwyck is indelible in Double Indemnity, to be shown May 5, but that portrait of pure, calculating evil was just one side of her story; Martha Ivers puts a few cracks into the picture. The Lady Eve showed on Valentine's Day but Ball of Fire shows off her lighter side; she really knew how to detonate a wisecrack. The best-known of her credits with Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Meet John Doe, are on the docket, as are two films with director Douglas Sirk, All I Desire and one of her other pairings with Indemnity star Fred MacMurray, There's Always Tomorrow. If you can only see one I'd go next Friday to see Sam Fuller's bizarre Freudian Western, Forty Guns, where at age 50 she does her own back-bruising stunts. Critics dismiss her cinema swan song, The Night Walker, where she is cast with her ex-husband, Robert Taylor, but the movie offers lowbrow fun that the actress did not condescend to and she made similar pictures for TV once her stint on The Big Valley ended.

She always worked. The top-rated Thorn Birds miniseries, made after she received her honorary Oscar, loses something once she's out of the picture. And there is so much more beyond BAM. Her powerhouse "woman's picture", Stella Dallas, still capable of wringing tears 70 years later. Her best credit with Capra, the cut-from-the-headlines phony preacher story The Miracle Woman. Formidable with a pair of well-aimed scissors in Anthony Mann's incredible Western The Furies(1950)--where is this on DVD? Touching opposite Robert Ryan in Clash by Night. Giving William Holden a helping hand in Golden Boy then supporting him in Executive Suite. Adding A-list moxie to the B-thriller Jeopardy. Out-sassing Edward G. Robinson in The Violent Men, as a more violent woman. And more.

Without annotation, I'll let another author, David Thomson, have the last word on Stanwyck in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "While she was alive, she did not seem one of the great stars. But at her death, it was clear how much she was loved. She was honest, sharp, gutsy, and smart. Terrific."

More last words. I should add 1962's Walk on the Wild Side as another must-see; she and hothouse newcomer Jane Fonda, in a remarkably uninhibited performance, are fascinating contrasts and steal the film from its morose leads, Laurence Harvey and Capucine (Stanwyck's lesbian madam is supposed to be smitten with Capucine, but the younger actress has the charisma of a floor mat).

And There's Always Tomorrow, screened today before a gratifyingly large afternoon audience at BAM, was captivating--the codes and mores of 1956, where even the teens dress for supper at home, seem as remote as Jane Austen today. It invites a comparison between Stanwyck's independent dress designer and Joan Bennett's content housewife (herself no slouch in the glamour-noir department, Bennett gives a serenely untroubled performance) but never puts the poles of experience they represent into conflict. Rather, it leapfrogs past feminism and in a distinctly modern touch urges that more attention be paid to toymaker MacMurray, who is so whipped by family life that he comes to identify with his automaton creation, "Rex the Walkie-Talkie Robot." (Its influence on You Better Watch Out, which I screened for my movie group last Christmas, is palpable.) Stanwyck's best moment comes when she gives up any illusion of a future with MacMurray, an old flame and associate; the reflection of a rain-streaked window puts tears on her fretful face, years before a similar, more famous sequence in the film version of In Cold Blood used the same photographic metaphor.


Brooks of Sheffield said...

Did you see "Remember the Night" on April 25. Another pairing with McMurray. Underrated, I think. And a fine Christmas film, if you need an alternative to Scrooge, George Bailey et al.

AnnieO said...

Nicely written. I love Stanwyck and so appreciate your write up. Would love more of your comments on her. I've enjoyed her for 40 years since i was a kid.
Do you think Wilson will ever get the book done? Will it tell us about the person behind the fabulous actress? Feel free to email me at my personal account at