Book Review: BARBARA STANWYCK: THE MIRACLE WOMAN (2012)

November 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

“She makes you realize how often the movies and the people in them try to distance us from life, so that we luxuriate in the cradling, annihilating falseness of ‘it’s only another movie.’”

This definitive statement on Barbara Stanwyck’s acting comes early in Dan Callahan’s 2012 biography of the Hollywood star in an analysis of her first major film, Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930). It touches on precisely that desperate, self-exposing quality in Stanwyck’s performances that her admirers know all too well but that gets lost in our generalized hindsight of classical Hollywood, wherein all stars seem to have existed on the same astral plane of ravishing beauty and unfaltering talent. And if not this shimmery nostalgia, then a doctrinaire auteurism that tells us an actor is only as good as whoever is directing her from behind the camera.

Lo and behold Dan Callahan, an auteurist film scholar with an appreciation of actors who dares argue that this relatively unglamorous star without a Best Actress Oscar to her name was not merely a great actress, but a major artist possessive of gifts that set her far apart from her contemporaries. His Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman is less biography than critical analysis, a comprehensive study of her films that examines the star’s private life only insofar as it provides clues to her acting methods and the emotional through lines of her body of work.

I first became aware of Stanwyck’s singular appeal during a viewing of Howard Hawks’ underappreciated screwball comedy Ball of Fire (1941). I had already known her from her two most famous films, The Lady Eve (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944), which I had seen during my cinephilic infancy, and from Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and William Wellman’s The Purchase Price (1932) after becoming a checklist auteurist. But as Sugarpuss O’Shea, the gangster’s moll who falls for a sheepish professor, she cast a spell that turned me into a Stanwyck obsessive. The urban wit and crackling fast-talk that always seems so stylized when delivered by other actors comes across as inborn in Stanwyck, who could tuck genuine playfulness and affection into the most acerbic wisecrack. Circumscribed into the most typical of screwball roles, she nonetheless exhibits great emotional versatility and awareness, deepening Sugarpuss not through overburdening nuance but through an effortless naturalism.

As Callahan so deftly illustrates throughout his book—often in hypothetical scenarios that imagine inferior actresses in her place—Stanwyck had a rare talent for hitting the right theatrical notes while also summoning up personal, deep-seated emotions, a process that managed to authenticate even her most fanciful characters. To paraphrase one of his more enticing points, Stanwyck is the classical screen actress to make Lee Strasberg blush.

For a fan like me, Babara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman functions both as comfort food—a means of re-experiencing movies I have already seen and adored through snappy critical descriptions that largely agree with my own predilections (not just about Stanwyck, but about the actors and directors she worked with)—and as a helpful answer to a question I often find myself asking: of all classical Hollywood actors, why is Barbara Stanwyck the only one whom I’ve pursued relentlessly? After Ball of Fire lit the fuse, I plowed through about twenty-five more of her movies over the span of a year, hitting the canonical high points and dabbling in some of her quickies and one-offs. Always I was struck by how consistently good she was. From the fragile young woman molded into a star by Frank Capra in the early 30s to the seasoned veteran who could alternate weepy melodramas with hard-edged noirs and Westerns come the 50s, Stanwyck evolved as a performer without ever shedding the spontaneity that made her earliest work so fresh and exciting. She steadily learned how to fine-tune her acting style while never falling into a performative rut, always striving to access her innermost feelings no matter what role she was given or who was assigned to direct her.

Callahan’s project is to substantiate these arguments through impassioned evaluation of the empirical celluloid evidence. He has a knack for writing about facial expression (most impressively in an analysis of her most famous close-up from Double Indemnity), vocal inflection, and all the subtle physical contortions that go into great acting, making half-remembered scenes come brilliantly alive in the process. In one of my favorite passages, describing an animalistic love scene between her and Robert Ryan in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), he writes:

“So many actresses crumpled up and slunk away when confronted by Ryan at full throttle on screen. Only Stanwyck has the talent and the sheer nerve to stand up to him and meet him more than halfway. He almost eats her over the sink with a DeNiro-like kiss. She struggles a bit, but then she looks right at him and unleashes her own passion, shoving a hand into the back of his undershirt and rifling around hungrily, as raw a slice of sexual desperation as has ever been shown in movies.”

For the unconverted, such writing is the most effective form of evangelism for the Stanwyck cause. Callahan moves from scene descriptions written as if in step with the action as it unfolds onscreen to concise interpretative takeaways (e.g. “That hand in Ryan’s undershirt is an indelible image, one of the things you think about when you think about Stanwyck—that daring, that need for flesh.”). You would be hard-pressed to reach the end and remain unconvinced of Stanwyck’s artistry.

Central to Callahan’s argument is that Stanwyck was stimulated by her collaborations with many of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, and the book is largely organized according to auteur. It was Frank Capra who exalted her frail, earthy beauty and first tapped into her reservoir of natural talent, William Wellman who toughened her up, Preston Sturges who made her a comedienne (“I told him I never get great comedies, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to get one.’”), Billy Wilder who evinced her inner darkness and inaugurated her run of film noirs, and Douglas Sirk who perhaps understood her best of all, channeling her unique sense of longing, defeat, and all-knowing pessimism into two of the most emotionally complex works of art ever to come out of Hollywood.

Each of these sections is impressive, but it is the chapter on Sirk that is the most crucial. As Callahan notes in his introduction, the powerful achievements of All I Desire (1953) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) have never been seriously considered in any previous book about Stanwyck, presumably because it’s taken such a long time for Sirk to finally occupy his rightful place in the canon of Hollywood greats. But these films are overlooked even among Sirk acolytes, and Callahan gives them the critical appreciation they so richly deserve. Of Stanwyck’s acting in one of All I Desire’s early scenes, he writes, “Stanwyck is so deeply involved in this woman’s nostalgia and regret that the scene almost feels pornographic, as in her best Capra work…Never before or after does Stanwyck’s face look so much like an open wound.”

Unfortunately, Callahan’s book is not an unqualified success. Though often electrifying and always enthusiastic, his colorful prose occasionally hits snags of flippancy and over-interpretation. Even more troubling, he tends to treat Stanwyck with a fawning familiarity that does not become his role as critic, indulging in pet names and musing unreasonably about her personal life. It’s one thing to make educated guesses about how her harsh upbringing and early history of male-inflicted abuse impacted her acting, but it’s another thing entirely to bemoan her “bad taste in men” and make conjectural inferences about her sex life. And even his educated guesses take on a dubious certainty. Art may imitate life, but the parallel narratives of biography and oeuvre never match up as cleanly as Callahan’s psychologically reductive corollaries suggest.

It’s likely that Victoria Wilson’s colossal Stanwyck biography, the first 1000+ page volume of which is to be released roughly a week from today, will make much of The Miracle Woman irrelevant, almost certainly in its charting of the emotional terrain of Stanwyck’s private life. But Callahan’s rhetorical achievement, his stirring case for Stanwyck-as-artist, is invaluable. In a hypothetical hierarchy of screen actors modeled on Andrew Sarris’s legendary tier-by-tier director breakdown in The American Cinema, Barbara Stanwyck undoubtedly belongs in the Pantheon, and Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman is as good a justification for that esteemed placement as is likely to be found. – Stuart

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