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Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck
Steel-True: 1907–1940.
By Victoria Wilson.
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Barbara Stanwyck is the most American of American actresses, the one who, more than any other, brought to her performances the grit and plain talk, the shrugs, gripes and wisecracking that epitomize the speech and attitudes of everyday American life. Which is also why, never believing that our native casualness can equal art, Americans have never given Stanwyck her due. “Great acting” is the term we reserve for something that seems above us, embodied by stylized creatures like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Lillian Gish—all of whom deserve to be described as great actresses (and were never emotionally remote); it is also a term for the condescending “great lady” poses of screen actresses from Helen Hayes to Meryl Streep.

All that stale air is what Victoria Wilson aims to blow away in Steel-True: 1907–1940, the first volume of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck. Wilson, a renowned editor at Knopf who has been famously working on this book for fifteen years, doesn’t strive to make the case that Stanwyck’s story deserves the seriousness and length she brings it; she knows she doesn’t have to. She treats Stanwyck as if her stature were never in question. Despite her uneven interpretations of various Stanwyck performances—and for me she misses the mark almost as much as she hits it—Wilson understands that Stanwyck was the most direct and least fussy of great actresses, one who could simultaneously be the toughest person in the room and the most emotionally unprotected.

A Stanwyck character can shock you: for example, Lily Powers in Baby Face, who smiles to herself as she watches the gin mill she grew up in burn to the ground, taking the bastard of a father who abused her along with it. Or a Stanwyck character can break your heart: for example, Lee Leander in Remember the Night, who demonstrates her toughness by choosing jail rather than allowing the assistant DA who’s in love with her to throw away his career by blowing the case against her.

A typical Stanwyck scene progresses from Point A to Point B with as little ostentation as possible, but also with emotions that run a mile deep. It would be unfair, and wrong, to say that Stanwyck’s performances are uncomplicated. Her naturalism is the emotional forerunner of the style that came to dominate American acting as the Method made its way into Broadway and Hollywood, but it is not burdened by the neurotic complications that characterized many of the Method actors.

Stanwyck’s approach made her as effective in the hard-boiled early melodramas of Frank Capra (pictures like The Miracle Woman and Forbidden) or, comedy in the 1930s and early ’40s being nearly as hard-nosed as drama, films like Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire and the greatest of all American romantic comedies, Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve. And it’s what allowed her to go against the genre grain when, in the 1940s, she transitioned into noir films like Double Indemnity and, in the 1950s, into more matronly roles in melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow, as piercing a movie about the discontents of marriage as America has ever produced. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity uses sex to get what she wants, but she is not a noir sexpot because she seems remote from desire itself, which gets in the way of what she really wants: the material trappings of middle-class comfort. Stanwyck’s Phyllis is femme fatale as put-on artist, sneering at respectability even as she easily manipulates the respectable people around her. And in the “other woman” role in There’s Always Tomorrow, Stanwyck eschews the steely suppressed hysteria that became Joan Crawford’s stock-in-trade, playing a woman so sensible and kind that she winds up making the wife she almost supplants (played by Joan Bennett) seem mean-spirited and selfish by comparison.

* * *

Wilson proceeds from the conviction that Stanwyck is what might be called a founding artist, at the forefront of establishing the direct, unvarnished style that has long defined American screen acting. Wilson wants not just to define Stanwyck as one of the giants of American screen acting but also to place her life at the center of an era that saw the switch from vaudeville and theater to films, and then from the silent era to sound. On a larger scale, Wilson wants to chart the change from the recklessness of Hoover’s economic policies to the compassionate activism of FDR’s New Deal, which Stanwyck, a lifelong Republican, opposed.

There isn’t a page here on which the sheer amount of research that Wilson has conducted isn’t evident. And that is the book’s glory—and its albatross. Steel-True does not yet have the visionary quality that was present from the start in Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, nor has Wilson yet achieved the seamless blend of critical appraisal and cultural history that sang on every page of Eileen Whitfield’s 1997 Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, still the most vital piece of Hollywood scholarship to emerge in the last few decades.

Steel-True crystallizes intellectually after you put it down, the wealth of information cohering into themes that carry through the book. Simply by noting Stanwyck’s presence or absence on year-to-year lists of the top ten box-office stars, or by detailing her salary from project to project (and how her income was affected when, as often happened, Stanwyck refused the lame assignments the studios were offering her), Wilson builds into her narrative an overarching consciousness of the precariousness of being a star, a crucial point for an epic biography set in golden-age Hollywood—especially in light of how routine it is for the public to assume that anyone famous lives a life of limitless privilege.

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