Ball of Fire
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.
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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.
Wilson has taken the unconventional approach of treating Hollywood as a workaday place instead of a glamour capital. We don’t get to bask in any of the glamour because, apparently, Stanwyck (née Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn) didn’t either. She was schooled early in hard knocks. When Stanwyck was 4, her mother, pregnant at the time, died after a drunk slipped and kicked her in the stomach, causing her to fall from a streetcar. Her father abandoned the family a few years after. Stanwyck lived with various siblings and relatives, and was something like a mother to her slightly older brother Malcolm. She worked as a receptionist and shop girl and, after becoming fascinated by Isadora Duncan, eventually a chorus girl. From various revues, it was a logical progression into the legitimate theater and speaking parts. The stories Wilson tells of those years have some echo of the Depression-era chorines making do in ’30s movies like Gold Diggers of 1933. But Wilson’s tales are gamier. Stanwyck’s friend, the actress Mae Clarke, remembers her advice on how to get a coat she wanted:
You say to your date, “Oh, I really love that coat, but I can’t afford it now. But it would mean so much to me.” Unless he’s stupid, he’s going to say, “Oh, let me get it for you.” And then you’re going to play it like this: “No, no, I don’t want to be indebted to you.” Look forlorn. Put it in the face. Use the voice a little bit, tremble the voice about how you certainly need it but there’s no way you can afford it, but wouldn’t it be wonderful. He’s going to say, “Come on, let me do it as a favor to you.” Play it that way and you’ll get the coat. Don’t come on too strong. He can’t know what you’re doing.
When Clarke followed this advice and got the coat, then lost it after she refused to honor her end of the quid pro quo, Stanwyck told her, “Listen, stupid. Part of the deal is if you want something, you’ve got to give out.”
Glancingly told as it is, that story—much more than, say, the tales of her hideously unhappy first marriage to Frank Fay and her happy second one to Robert Taylor—seems key to the book. It’s easy to imagine a Stanwyck character taking that same practical, nonmoralistic tone. And in retelling the story, Wilson is as bracingly economical as Stanwyck, sparing us the condescending hemming and hawing about how “it was different in those days.”
Stanwyck’s experience, from childhood, of not being able to rely on anyone other than herself matured into a bootstrap Republicanism from which she never wavered. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Stanwyck’s decision not to back FDR and his economic measures—which were desperately needed by people in far more difficult straits than she ever faced—is part of the blind self-interest that always figures into conservatism. But Wilson’s concern is Stanwyck the artist, and the self-reliance that formed her political beliefs is also what made her such an unsentimental screen presence. It’s what you see in the cocky pre-Code melodrama Night Nurse, in which Stanwyck, hands on hips, stands over a drunken society woman who can’t rouse herself to care for her kids and says, “You mother!” Or what informs the Yankee puritanism of her performance as Megan Davis, the missionary’s fiancée in Frank Capra’s uncharacteristically poetic The Bitter Tea of General Yen (for my money the best picture he ever made). It’s the character’s fortitude, her inability to give herself over to the sensuousness of the Chinese warlord who holds her captive, that ultimately destroys him and his empire.
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Stanwyck, Wilson tells us, kept people at a distance, did not give her trust easily, and shed old friends as she moved on to new parts of her life. And she makes a plausible case for that behavior being rooted in Stanwyck’s hardscrabble background. But often it feels as if Stanwyck has held Wilson at a distance too, and the book’s psychological portraiture feels explained rather than shown. Stanwyck’s performances are not as vividly evoked as they might be, and some of the films, like General Yen, are subject to odd readings. Wilson sees it as an imperialist’s view of China when, from the start, Capra details and criticizes the arrogant stance that the missionary class takes toward the country and its people.
Yet Wilson’s book, an unsentimental re-creation of an era that’s now swathed in nostalgia hardly indistinguishable from what the fan magazines of the time were peddling, is a major accomplishment. The determination to treat Hollywood as both a business to be anatomized and a cultural and artistic phenomenon to be evoked is rarely attempted in star bios—let alone succeeds so much of the time—on the scale or with the intelligence that Wilson brings to it.
Wilson accords Stanwyck the weight she deserves in the cultural history of twentieth-century America. The offspring of Stanwyck’s plain, true, unsentimental style range from the Jane Fonda of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Klute and The Morning After to Debra Winger to, right now, Viola Davis and Maria Bello (a major talent waiting for the great parts she deserves). You can sense Stanwyck’s aura in moments like a desperate Pam Grier in Coffy pulling a sawed-off shotgun on the drug dealer whose dope killed her kid sister, or the regret and determination that undergird her work in Jackie Brown. You can sense it in Scarface when a lethally bored Michelle Pfeiffer turns to her mobster boyfriend (Robert Loggia) whooping it up with his chums in a nightclub and deadpans, “So, you want to dance, Frank, or you want to sit here and have a heart attack?”
It may be that those women and those moments give us so much pleasure, and feel so close to us, that we hesitate to think of them in terms of greatness, because to do so would be to falsify that pleasure. And it may be that the case Wilson makes for the woman who embodied that directness is not just an act of devotion to Barbara Stanwyck, but an attempt to make Americans moviegoers feel less alienated from themselves.