Ball of fire

Pub date July 3, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

SINGULAR SIREN Sam Fuller, known for being one of the toughest mugs in Hollywood, wrote of casting Barbara Stanwyck as the matriarchal sexpot in his whacked-out 1957 western Forty Guns, "She was ready to do whatever you needed, even if it meant falling off her horse and being dragged along the ground." That Stanwyck was already 50 when she commanded this attention gives a sense of her fearsome robustness, something that held movie audiences in thrall for the better part of three decades.

A question inevitably surfaces in watching the greatest hits that dot the centennial celebration running through July at the Castro Theatre and the Pacific Film Archive: was there ever another American film actress who projected such a fully formed and coherent persona? In lesser films and masterpieces alike, Stanwyck is some kind of singularity: plot, direction, and supporting players all bend to her arching eyebrows. Her tragic Brooklyn childhood — mother dead in a freak accident when Stanwyck was four, father gone soon thereafter — may account for some of the intuition she brought to her roles, but in the end there’s no simple accounting for the bewitching blend of worldliness and sincerity that can only be called Stanwyckian.

She didn’t have the polished beauty of many of her peers, though I’ve always thought Stanwyck’s face anticipated Hollywood’s move from soft-focus cinematography (the dream visions of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich) to the angular crispness of the noir image (Stanwyck’s lead in 1944’s Double Indemnity being one of the defining femmes fatales, and terribly fun at that). More important, Stanwyck is the actress who best embodies the gift of talking pictures. The earliest film in the series, 1931’s Night Nurse, was made only four years after the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, brought sound to screen, and already the Stanwyck heroine is cracking wise. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis essentially played as the silent stars had (with their faces, in close-up), but trying to imagine a Stanwyck performance without the sound — the hurried talk, sharp laugh, and many sighs indicating some combination of amusement, sorrow, and yearning — is a fool’s errand.

Stanwyck used the increased range offered by this new technology to decode her complicated women. The exemplar here is The Lady Eve, the 1941 Preston Sturges screwball comedy that features Stanwyck’s most virtuosic performance. It won’t come as any surprise that her character, Jean Harrington, is a whip-smart dame, but the way she balances the put-on with pathos is astonishing. Stanwyck’s trick was in playing the part — of the comedian, femme fatale, melodrama mother — with infectious relish while letting the audience in on the act and revealing its vulnerabilities. Despite the role’s many faces, we never lose sight of the center: a woman who knows the rules of the game all too well. As for women, Stanwyck’s character here reflects, "the best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad." There’s a lifetime of regret and resolve in that pause. It’s nothing that academic theories of subjectivity or identification can touch — we simply want to be with her as much as we can. (Max Goldberg)

THESPIAN EXTRAORDINARE In A Superficial Estimation (Hanuman), a small book that’s also one of the greatest ever on the subject of film, the poet John Wieners writes about his godmother, Barbara Stanwyck. Other chapters detail Wieners’s bond with his sister, Elizabeth Taylor, and with friends and relatives such as Dorothy Lamour and Lana Turner; as part of such an awesome imagined family tree, Stanwyck’s godmother role is apt. It’s hard to think of another actress both independent (remote from repressive traditional maternal bonds) and strong enough to oversee one and all.

Within the more traditional realms of canonical film criticism, Stanwyck has inspired a broad range of responses. When reviewing Silkwood for the New Yorker in 1984, Pauline Kael wrote that if Stanwyck stole and ate a sandwich, "we’d register that her appetite made her break the rules," whereas with Meryl Streep, "we just observe how accomplished she is." Kael’s zeal for Stanwyck’s vigor extended to vehicles ranging from 1935’s Annie Oakley to 1937’s Stella Dallas, a rare instance in which she endorsed melodrama, a genre she loathed. "Remarkable modernism," "miraculously natural," and "hard realism" were three of the patented double-descriptive terms the slang-loving Kael applied to an "amazing vernacular actress" whose "unsentimental strength," in her eyes, found a match in director William Wellman and worked to effectively counter Frank Capra’s cornier tendencies.

Interestingly, the feisty Kael’s male predecessors and peers weren’t always so enamored of the powerful Stanwyck. In a review of 1941’s Meet John Doe, the critic Otis Ferguson asserted that "Barbara Stanwyck has always needed managing," an observation that has more than a tinge of prefeminist chauvinism to it, even if he’s suggesting that he’d like her more if she turned her performances down a notch. The great James Agee was warmer in his appreciation of Stanwyck’s talent, though he once wrote a dual review of two 1944 films that weirdly favored the supposed "Vassar girl on a picket line" charms of flinty Joan Fontaine in some trifle called Frenchman’s Creek to Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Time has proved that it’s Stanwyck’s performance, not Fontaine’s, that causes a "freezing rage of excitations."

However great, Stanwyck’s wigged, campy, anklet-baring performance in that film isn’t far from — just a bit better-honed than — the type of work Joan Bennett did with Fritz Lang (nor is it as wildly inventive as what Gloria Grahame came up with when paired with Lang or Nicholas Ray). But Stanwyck was much more than a femme fatale; she was a no-nonsense personality — except when nonsense was fun, of course. She was peerlessly versatile. Not only did she repeatedly work with auteurs as widely varied as Capra, Night Nurse‘s Wellman, Double Indemnity’s Wilder, and melodrama master Douglas Sirk, she frequently put her imprint on their style. Her movies with Sirk are a great example of this — no moping Jane Wyman or narcissistic Turner, Stanwyck brings across the full force of the title of 1953’s All I Desire, even if it’s one of the director’s second-tier, black-and-white efforts.

In that movie and even more in 1952’s underrated and ahead-of-its-time Clash by Night, an adultery tale in which Stanwyck and the equally superb Robert Ryan strain against the shackles of ’50s conservatism, in the process revealing some emotional spaces rarely seen at the time, Stanwyck proves that she doesn’t need an auteur, or an auteur in peak form, to make a movie great (and I mean "make a movie great," not "make a great movie"). I don’t know if any actress has made my heart hurt the way Stanwyck does in Stella Dallas when she overhears an unflattering conversation on a train (that same vehicle where, in 1933’s Baby Face, she dealt with a different type of indignity on the way to climbing skyscrapers). We remember Stella Dallas’s monstrous polka-dot attire and Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet, but many of Stanwyck’s transitional pictures are rewarding rather than campy. It makes the worst kind of sense that the Academy Awards were shamefully slow in recognizing Stanwyck’s talent. When it came to legends like her and Alfred Hitchcock, it could be counted on to be blind until almost the very end. (Johnny Ray Huston)


July 6–31, $4–$8

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-1124

Also July 17–18, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120