100 years from now, Barbara Stanwyck will be seen as the finest American actress of her time. I have no doubt about that.
Dan Callahan’s book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman , published in 2012, stands out among the many books written about Barbara, as it is not a classical biography, but a brilliant, sensitive and exquisite dissection of her art and her filmography. Mr. Callahan has a true appreciation for Stanwyck’s art and the book is best savored like a fine wine — in delicious little sips. Much like what Mr. Callahan appreciates in Stanwyck’s acting, in his book there are flashes of true brilliance and eye-opening moments of recognition that made reading it a royal treat. The Miracle Woman is insightful, rich and deep, as the woman he writes about. We had the pleasure and the privilege of talking to Mr. Callahan about his book and Stanwyck herself.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Your background, your current projects.
I was born in Chicago and I came to New York to study acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory. When I graduated from school, I started doing theater reviews and then film reviews, and I have made most of my living as a journalist. I write primarily about acting. My newest book is called The Camera Lies, Acting for Hitchcock, which will be published on September 1, 2020 by Oxford University Press. My first novel, That Was Something, was published in 2018. I’m working now on a second novel.
Why Stanwyck? Every fan has that movie or performance that instigated his or her fascination with the actress, so what is your personal Stanwyck story?
I remember very clearly one night walking home from a friend’s house and thinking, “I’ve got to do a Stanwyck book as my first book. She’s the greatest, and there aren’t enough books about her. Yes, I’m going to do one.” I remember everything about the night, where I was. It was this decisive moment, like in her movies when she has a realization about something.
What is the first Stanwyck movie you remember watching?
Pretty sure it was Sorry, Wrong Number. My sister Tracy and I actually made our own version of Sorry, Wrong Number with our family video camera when I was in fifth grade and she was in third grade. Tracy played the Stanwyck part.
I love the book’s title. Can you elaborate why you chose it?
It was the title of one of her best movies, and I felt it had resonance because she had such hardship growing up. She had everything against her, and look what she achieved. To me, that’s a miracle, a miracle of will and of talent and perseverance.
ABOUT THE BOOK AND WRITING PROCESS
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
Whenever I write about anyone, I am always trying to capture their essence. That means thinking about them as much and as deeply as possible. When it came to Stanwyck, that meant trying to understand her viewpoint. And that could get a little dark sometimes.
JH: Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
This thing of self-reliance and not counting on other people for anything. Needing to move on and go it alone. I found that hard to take sometimes.
Your book can be defined as an analysis of Stanwyck’s filmography, focusing on her acting while tapping into Stanwyck’s real life for insights into her craft. Was this your original intention, or did the format of the book structure and/or restructure itself as you went along? How long did it take you to write? Were her films readily available for your study or did you have to seek them out? Any anecdotes about the process itself?
I always intended it to be a study of her work in films, though I wanted to try to learn as much about her life as possible. I wrote about a third of the book in 2010, which is when I sold it. The rest of it was written in 2011. I already had copies of many of her films and in most cases I had seen them many times. I remember Always Goodbye (1938) was one of the few I had to seek out that I hadn’t seen, and so that was an entirely fresh reaction. Otherwise, I had managed to videotape almost all of them when I was a kid.
Did you get to meet or talk to any of her previous biographers or any people who personally knew her?
I was not able to speak to previous biographers. I did get to interview Leslie Caron, who shared a story about Stanwyck’s brother. But my focus really was the films themselves and her work in them.
Your book is best enjoyed and understood if you’ve seen Stanwyck’s films many, many times. The level of detailed analysis is astonishing. What was your process writing each section? How many times did you feel it was necessary to watch each film to prepare?
I would watch a film and then take notes on it, and from that I would write a draft of what I wanted to say about it. Again, these were films that I had seen many times over the years. I did watch them roughly in chronological order based on the chapters I had set up.
You give very strong opinions in this book, and I thank you for that! When you like a Stany movie, it’s your analysis and appreciation that make for a really great read, but when you don’t like one of her movies, you are brutally honest… Some fans certainly may take issue with some of your criticisms. As a critic yourself, now that you are equally on the side of creation, how do you deal with your critics?
This was my first book. When I did my second book, on Vanessa Redgrave, I was able to balance my writing about her acting with many stories about her political life. Stanwyck was a more difficult subject because in many ways she kept her own personal life at bay and fed her emotions directly into her work. I did tend to react strongly to the films, but I hope the energy of that lets people formulate their own reactions.
I can imagine that you took a “break” from Stanwyck after writing the book. How long was the break or is it still ongoing? Have you changed any perceptions of her performances/movies since? Anything you would have liked to add/change to your prior analyses in retrospect?
I did take a break for a few years, but I recently started looking at some of her films again. I actually just re-watched a lot of The Barbara Stanwyck Show when I got sick for a few days at the end of February. I think I underrated that show somewhat. There are some fascinating episodes late in the season, particularly “High Tension” (1961), in which she plays a mink-clad woman who is attempting to return her adopted son to an orphanage because he is deaf. There’s this moment in that episode where her character realizes that she is a worthless person for trying to do such a heartless thing, and there are thoughts here about adoption and what it takes to be a mother that feel like a personal explanation and creative exorcism for Stanwyck, because this show aired not long after she cut all ties with her adopted son Dion following his arrest in 1960. She’s very funny as a nerd-type woman in “Assassin” with Peter Falk. And in “Frightened Doll” the narrative offers an explanation for why Stanwyck let her hair go grey that is entirely persuasive to me. So I do think I might have more to say about her work as the years go on. There are certain artists you spend your life with, and she is certainly one of them for me.
BARBARA STANWYCK PERFORMANCES:
What is Barbara Stanwyck’s Signature “Star Quality” in your opinion?
I think what people immediately respond to is a “tough-but-tender” quality she has, hard on the outside, vulnerable on the inside.
What are her top three performances?
I would choose The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Lady Eve (1941), and All I Desire (1953).
JH: Can you tell us why you think those are her best performances?
I think what impresses me most about her performances in those three movies is how far she gets emotionally. Megan’s moment of “recognition” toward the end of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and the look of extreme sadness, nostalgia, and regret on Stanwyck’s face when her character Naomi sees her old home again in All I Desire. And her sheer technical mastery in The Lady Eve, which is the apotheosis of her tough girls softened by love for a more innocent man.
What are her top three films – and do these differ from the films possessing her top three performances?
You know, I would have to go with those three films as well. Those are the high-water marks, to me. But there is so much to choose from.
What was her most disappointing performance and why?
I really wish she hadn’t made Red Salute (1935), which is outright offensive. That’s the one I would strike from her filmography if I could.
What is your Stanwyck “guilty pleasure” film?”
The Other Love (1947), where she plays a pianist ill with tuberculosis and wears a different beautiful Edith Head outfit in practically every scene. It’s maybe not a good movie, but it’s so much fun to wallow in.
What are Stanwyck’s “hidden gems” in your opinion, those films/performances that most people don’t know about but they should be more well known?
I always try to turn people on to Ever in My Heart (1933), a heartbreaking film about what prejudice against Germans does to a happily married couple during World War I.
What would you identify as the pinnacle of her craft, when was she at the top of her game?
I think the pinnacle is The Lady Eve, and an important part of that really is the Edith Head clothes. She’s like the uber-Stanwyck in that movie, the best possible version of herself.
What is your favorite and least favorite Stanwyck genre?
I’m not the biggest fan of westerns, but she loved them and a lot of her best films are westerns, especially The Furies (1950) and Forty Guns (1957). But I’m really happy to see her in anything. The screwball comedy genre is such a great fit for her, and I think she herself was surprised by that, which adds to the fun.
In your review of Stanwyck’s films, subtle moments or looks of recognition are very important to you, perhaps even more so than scenes themselves. Do you find her quietly nuanced portrayals (e.g. Early Capra, My Reputation, The Great Man’s Lady) of more value than her more guns blazing performances (e.g. The Furies, Clash by Night)?
I enjoy both equally. We all enjoy when she shoots the works and tells someone off, of course. That’s her trademark. But I guess I really do love her quieter, multi-leveled responses even better, like when she says, “That’s right, we’re smart” in Remember the Night (1940). Maybe that’s what separates a more casual Stanwyck fan from people who are more deeply stirred by her work and want to delve deeper into it.
It is easy to rave about a Stanwyck performance in one of her better films, but can you tell us a not so great movie/s (in your opinion) in which you feel Stanwyck still gave an excellent performance?
That’s a very good question. Shopworn (1932) isn’t the best movie in the world, yet I still remember a lot of her performance in it. And I think she gives close to a great performance in The Lady Gambles (1949), even though it’s a little run-of-the-mill as a film.
Who was her best co-star in your opinion?
I think most people would say Fred MacMurray, and so I will, too. But Henry Fonda is a very close second.
What co-stars do you wish she would have worked with and why?
I’d like to see what Stanwyck would be like opposite Lew Ayres. I feel like he is exactly the type of man she likes on screen: beautiful, innocent, vulnerable. Or maybe a romance with Robert Donat. It would be fun to see her play a scene with Glenda Farrell.
What Golden Age film/roles would you have loved to have been played by Stanwyck?
I’d be curious to see her in Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Fountainhead (1949), both of which she campaigned for and lost.
She never won a competitive Oscar and was nominated comparatively few times. What Stanwyck films/performances would you have nominated and which ones deserved an Oscar?
I think she should have been nominated for Ladies of Leisure (1930), The Miracle Woman (1931), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), but I assume she wasn’t because Columbia wasn’t thought of as a major studio yet. I also think she should have been nominated for The Furies (1950), All I Desire (1953), and Forty Guns (1957), but westerns and soap operas weren’t taken seriously enough. I’d be happy to give her an early Oscar for Ladies of Leisure and then a second one for either Stella Dallas (1937) or The Lady Eve.
I think they’re both great performances, but I would give the award to Stanwyck for a very good Oscar reason: she wanted it more and it would have meant more to her.
BARBARA STANWYCK DIRECTORS:
What director(s) do you think got the best performances out of Stanwyck and why?
Definitely Frank Capra, who fell in love with her and made her a star, William Wellman, who brought out her toughest side, Preston Sturges, who opened up a whole new world of fun and glamour for her, and Douglas Sirk and Sam Fuller, both of whom appreciated and understood her in radically different ways.
We can say that Capra was able to bring to light the soulful/raw Stanwyck on film. Would you agree that in their collaborations (minus Meet John Doe), Stanwyck brought an intimate/vulnerable Capra that we never saw again? We often discuss how a director affects an actor, but how do you feel the actress affected Capra?
I do think that Capra’s films with Stanwyck reveal a side of him that we don’t see as much of elsewhere, though I think there is a similar tenderness in the way he deals at times with Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
You seem to imply that Capra was so in love with Stanwyck that the characters in Forbidden (1932) shadow their real-life love triangle; that General Yen was also a Capra love/respite letter to Stanwyck. Can you elaborate more about this?
Capra wrote a bit about this in his memoir The Name Above the Title. He doesn’t tell you everything about what he felt about her, but I do think he says enough so that we can see those two movies in the light of his wanting her and then losing her.
Wellman understood Stanwyck better than Capra – your statement – yet he did not produce her best films or performances. (You only seem thrilled with Night Nurse (1931). Why the discrepancy?
I think that Wellman understood one side of her better, the flashier, tough side that people always respond to in Stanwyck. I do also like So Big! (1932). The Great Man’s Lady (1942) was important to Stanwyck and she put a lot of effort into it, but it somehow lacks that through-line that would make it a major and coherent film. I think the short answer is that Wellman often approached his movies in a too-hasty way whereas Capra lavished so much attention and time on her.
Speaking of Wellman, what is it specifically that he brought out of her that was different from Capra?
Again, he brought out the tough side that Capra had allowed her to set aside under his loving way of looking at her.
What Stanwyck did Hawks, Sturges, Wilder, Sirk, Vidor tap into? How did they make Stanwyck better? And how did Stanwyck enhance their work?
I feel like for Sturges she was her most glamorous self, and for Sirk she showed what survival in this world can take out of you. For Hawks, she could be the tough and masculine/feminine ideal he aimed for. For Wilder, she could match him dare for dare and taunt for taunt. Vidor had a lot of trouble on the set of Stella Dallas, as did Stanwyck, because of producer Samuel Goldwyn’s interference and bad attitude. I feel like her Stella Dallas performance was her own achievement, brought home against great odds.
Wilder loved working with Stanwyck. Why do you think they did not collaborate again after Double Imdemnity (1944), particularly since they both had long careers and thus ample opportunity?
Stanwyck loved Sunset Boulevard (1950), but of course she wouldn’t have fit in that movie. I can’t picture her in any of the female roles in his other movies, maybe only the Jan Sterling part in Ace in the Hole (1951), which is really a supporting part. I can’t see her in parts played by Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, or Shirley MacLaine. I think the short answer is that when his career was rising, hers was in decline, professionally if not artistically, and that was solely because of her age. And that isn’t fair, but that’s the way it worked then.
What director do you wish she would have worked with and why?
I’m curious about what Stanwyck might have been like in a Joseph Losey movie. I also wonder what George Cukor might have brought out in her.
You don’t shy away from giving a strong opinion about fan favorites like Lady of Burlesque (1943), Sorry Wrong Number (1947) or Meet John Doe (1941). Do you tend to find more commercial films less appealing?
I enjoy all three of those movies and could look at them again right now. But when I was writing the book, I had to put my critic’s hat on and hold them to the highest standard. I feel like Lady of Burlesque is best in clips of the most colorful on-stage scenes. We tend to forget about the murder plot, which isn’t too interesting. I go into great detail about my problems with her casting in Sorry, Wrong Number in my book, and I stand by that. Those padded flashbacks in that movie drive me crazy, and they drove me crazy even when I saw that film as a little kid and didn’t have any standards at all. Meet John Doe has extraordinary scenes for her at the beginning, but that movie bogs down and doesn’t know what to do with itself, which Capra himself openly admitted. So again, I have problems with them, but I also love them and would look at them again any time.
Stanwyck said the script was the most important thing for her–(“if it’s not on the page, I cannot bring it to the surface”)– but how does a director help an actor, particularly one so seemingly self-sufficient as Stanwyck? For example, you mentioned that Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – another fan favorite – in someone else’s hands could have been a much better film.
I think the basic idea of Christmas in Connecticut is fine. The problem for me is the director and especially the pacing of the material. Peter Godfrey didn’t have a very light touch as a director. Stanwyck liked him very much as a person, and so they worked again on The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Cry Wolf (1947), which to me are two of her worst movies, in the bottom five, maybe. So I’d just like to give Christmas in Connecticut to a solid comedy director like Wesley Ruggles or William A. Seiter and see if they might have given it a bit more zip.
BARBARA STANWYCK BIOGRAPHY:
You called Axel Madsen’s biography unreliable. Can you elaborate?
There is one thing that has been bothering me for a while, and maybe together we can figure it out. In both of the Stanwyck biographies I read as a kid, the Al DiOrio book that came out in 1983 and the Axel Madsen book that was published in 1994, they say that Stanwyck was rushed to the hospital on October 7, 1941 because she had severed arteries in her wrist and arm. I could find no mention of that in archives, but I repeated this date in my book. I can remember very clearly thinking that something seemed wrong about it, but I wasn’t able to figure it out.
It was only when I read Victoria Wilson’s biography in 2013 that I realized that this accident actually happened on October 6, 1939 and that the date had been moved forward at some point in order to tie it in with Robert Taylor’s flirtation with Lana Turner. There are photos of her with her arm in a sling in the fall of 1939, not 1941. Once I realized this, I immediately wrote my publisher and asked them to change this date in the e-book version of my book and in any subsequent printings (this was a few years ago). Far from an attempt to try to somehow get Taylor’s attention, this incident was actually an example of Stanwyck the Stoic, because she didn’t want anyone to call Taylor while he was working to tell him about her accident.
My question is: when did this date get moved forward? Was it DiOrio who first did it, or did this happen earlier? We can officially put that story to rest now, I hope. I wish I had been able to untangle this matter when I was writing my book, but it stumped me. It’s my mission now to stop that story/date in its tracks if I ever see it online. It doesn’t seem to be up anywhere important and/or prominent that I have seen. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.
In recent years there have been many rumors and innuendos about the supposedly “lavender” marriage between Stanwyck and Taylor. What’s your opinion on this?
There is no way of knowing for certain, but if you are asking my personal opinion based on everything I have read and heard, I think that Stanwyck was heterosexual and so probably was Taylor, though he definitely had masculinity issues. Their marriage was not finally a happy or successful one, but that doesn’t mean they were gay.
How important was it for you to understand Stanwyck as a person to write your book?
Very much so. I do feel like there were moments when I was thinking about her after reading an interview with her or whatnot where I did think I was getting close to figuring her out, but always there was a wall up. It’s like there was a sign ready to lower that said, “No Trespassing.” And I also feel that her work was her life, the best of her life. I did understand that, and I think I understood why that was the case.
JH: Can you tell us why?
Bad things tended to happen to her in life, whether it was bad relationships or even just things like house fires. Stanwyck saw the hand she was dealt, and so she moved to another table, the artist table.
Stanwyck left no Autobiography and scarce honest interviews, which makes finding the real Stanwyck like an archaeological task or deconstructing a character itself. How did you “decide” on Stanwyck? What helped you the most in your quest for her? What were the books/sources/films that helped you understand her as a person?
I spent time at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, where they had lots of rare interviews and news clippings about her, and I feel like that was key. There were a few interviews and articles from the 1970s where I remember thinking, “She’s being a lot more forthcoming than usual.” You know, I really feel like Ella Smith’s 1973 tribute book is still in so many ways a gold standard for Stanwyck research, even though so much of it is superlatives from the people who worked with her. I think all those superlatives and compliments from so many people add up. There was a reason why she was so beloved.
She seems to never want to give “herself” out. You hint at that in your book. How do you feel this helped or hindered her onscreen work and her legacy?
I think that is exactly why she is so great and so fascinating. You have to come to her. She will let you in, but it has to be on her terms. And it might get scary, and so you have to be prepared for that. But I do think she used a lot of her own experience to inform her work. All that anger that is so easy for her to access and so weirdly beautiful came from somewhere.
What character did Stanwyck play that was the closest to who Stanwyck was in real Life?
That’s a very hard question. I wonder what she would have said if someone had asked her that. I think if you really want to see what she might have been like as a person, it’s there in her earliest work in films like Ladies of Leisure and Night Nurse (1931). By the time she is playing Stella Dallas or in The Lady Eve, that girl has disappeared and in her place is this warrior and great actress and star.
You don’t give any love to former husbands Fay or Taylor, though both in different ways helped advance her career and increase her stardom. Can you elaborate? Do you feel she would have found equal success without their assistance or the image they helped give her?
Fay did help her career in the beginning, that’s true. But he was so cruel to her that I find it hard to even want to give one more thought to him. Taylor was good for the image she wanted to project, yes. But I don’t think he did her self-esteem any good. I wish she could have had better relationships with better men. When she was older, she seemed to like the younger guys, but of course that couldn’t have been publicized at the time.
Any men in her life whom you did approve of?
I feel like she did get something out of her secret relationship with Robert Wagner, if we choose to believe everything he wrote about it in his book. But good Lord, Robert Wagner! I don’t know what happened the night Natalie Wood died, but that casts a shadow over him no matter how we look at it. You know what, though? I hope Stanwyck had lovers that she kept totally hidden from us and I hope she had a good time with them. Let’s hope for that, at least.
Do you think a woman like Stanwyck could have ever met her match? Despite the exception of Katharine Hepburn, the general rule for great dames of the Golden Era like Stany, Davis, Crawford, etc, was that they were doomed to be without a partner/soul mate. Why is this?
A very hard question. She’s perfect with Henry Fonda on screen, but can you imagine her with the off-screen Fonda? I can’t. Capra? Maybe his love was too intense for her. From everything I’ve read about her, I think what she really wanted wasn’t a match or someone to challenge her but someone pretty and a little submissive that she could teach. She might have had better luck finding that now than in 1936 or 1952.
Every biographer mentions her republican political leanings. Do you think this matters in understanding a person, her art, or the context of her film choices and collaborators? If so, how does it matter?
Only in the sense that I don’t think she would have made Red Salute or B.F.’s Daughter (1948) if she hadn’t gravitated toward those politics. I really don’t care too much about her politics. I’m glad she didn’t testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, like Robert Taylor did. I think she knew where to draw the line.
What is the Dark Side of Stanwyck?
I think everybody would say her relationship with her adopted son Dion, which was very sad. You have to understand the hell she went through as a kid. You can really see some of the scarier side of her philosophy of survival in a movie like Baby Face (1933), where she has that Nietzsche-an mentor telling her to be strong and take what she can get. I do think there was a lot of Stanwyck herself in that stance, and it shows most clearly later on in that scene where Dean Jagger confesses his weak, unrequited, unappealing love to her in Forty Guns. She listens like someone performing delicate surgery. She cannot allow herself to feel bad for him. And I think that’s the way she felt about Dion finally, too.
In this polarized world, Stanwyck seems to be generally liked and respected intersectionally? Why?
Maybe because everyone can feel her independence and self-reliance without necessarily having to get into any of the details of it. Those details are where real Stanwyck fans can live and wonder and discuss her choices.
Digging a bit deeper. Stanwyck said “I can be victimized on screen but I never, ever want to play a flat-out victim…”). You are very insightful. What does it tell you about her?
I really like that quote. She did not ever want to play anyone who didn’t fight. And Stanwyck fought to win.
Do you feel this Stanwyck stoicism would have remained so during the current “Me Too” movement? Can you imagine a modern day Stany being honest about her past, or was this level of intimacy a perpetual no-go?
Such a hard question. My instinct is to say that she would not want to participate. I don’t think she could have shared the full hell of her past with her public. That’s not who she was. I think even a 2020 Stanwyck would keep certain things to herself or only share them with close family members.
Have you read the recent Victoria Wilson biography? Has it completed your view of Stanwyck? Any insights or differing perspectives to argue?
We were all waiting for the Wilson biography of Stanwyck for so long! Wilson had been working on it for twenty years. I remember hearing about it in the 1990s when I was in college. I was very aware of it. When I was writing my book, I felt like I had been waiting so long for the Wilson book that I really wondered if any of us would ever get to see it. That’s partly why I wrote my own book, because I was uncertain that we would ever get to read the Wilson book. I feel that she did very valuable research on Stanwyck’s childhood and adolescence. That part of her book is definitive and can be used as a resource going forward. But honestly, I wish that she had given us just one very long book. I very much want to read the second volume and I hope it comes out sooner rather than later.
ON THE ART OF STANWYCK’S ACTING
Did you Study Acting? Can you give us some background?
I studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory, a very rigorous program where we learned about choosing actions for lines and using imagination rather than the personal excavating of the Lee Strasberg version of the Method. I am still a Stella Adler proponent and I approach my writing on acting from her perspective.
I know nothing about the art of acting, all I can do is discern whether, as with wine, I like it or not. What constitutes great acting for you?
It’s very simple. You need to have an expressive voice and an expressive face. Then you need to choose how to use those things wisely. Stella Adler always said, “Your talent lies in your choice.” What separates the great actors from the good ones? There’s a kind of soulfulness that we all recognize. That comes from God, or whatever higher power you might believe in.
Do you like Method Acting? I have a theory that Stanwyck was Method before it was ever a thing but without the BS…
It depends on which kind we mean. I admire the Stella Adler version of Method acting, but I disapprove of the Lee Strasberg Method, which was all about using your own life for your roles only. I think the sum total of Stanwyck’s experience was just there for her, and that was her talent. She never had to push. All of her extreme emotions were right there under the surface for her whenever she wanted them.
What do you think was Stanwyck’s technique/method as an actor? You analyze every scene or key scenes from an almost clinical point of view. Do you think Stanwyck could be clinical in her moves or gestures or was she more instinctual?
I think she changed over time. The girl in the Capra movies was purely instinctual. The middle-aged artist who could keep repeating a scene in The Lady Gambles because another actor couldn’t remember his lines had lots of technique to fall back on. But she was one of those actors who was best on a first take. So I think she was always somewhat instinctual if she didn’t have to do too many takes.
We do know Stanwyck improved her craft through the years. Was this achieved merely through experience or did she study with mentors, directors, etc?
Willard Mack taught her certain techniques at the beginning of her stage career, but I really do think it was pretty much all her after that. She did it by herself. Very few people helped her, aside from Capra at the beginning of her film work.
Let’s talk about her progression as an actress. You also seem to indicate that as she got more “professional,” she lost a little of her purity/innocence/rawness. Can you be more specific?
I think it’s what I said about her professionalism under trying circumstances during The Lady Gambles. All actors acquire more technique as they go along because they have learned how to solve certain problems.
You seem to assert that Stanwyck’s signature “look of recognition” is due to her early childhood abandonment and abuse. Other great stars suffered abandonment (Davis) or even abuse (Crawford) and yet they don’t have the Stanwyck “depth.” What made Stanwyck so different?
I actually don’t think those “recognition” looks have much to do with her past. I feel like she has moved beyond that and she’s on a much more abstract plane of thought and feeling. That’s what’s so thrilling about those moments to me: they’re ever-so-slightly cold, objective, and so detailed as to be profound. That is her greatest achievement as an artist, I think.
You seem to imply that actor and person cannot be separated. An actor uses the characters for his own needs, and an actor adds from his own life into the characters, but this contradicts Stanwyck herself. She always said acting was just a job. Was this statement merely BS from B.S.?
Her “acting is just a job” thing was part of what she wanted her image to be for her public. The sense that Stanwyck would never put on airs, like, say, Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. But we know that she took her work very seriously and wanted to be “the best of all.” And there are times, which I detail in my book, when she plays characters rather far from what we know about her, and she does this convincingly. That repressed missionary in The Bitter Tea of General Yen? What could be further from her own experience?
You introduce the concept “Star as Auteur.” Do you believe Stanwyck to be an auteur? Can you elaborate on that?
She was definitely an auteur in that she brought her own point of view to everything she did. Douglas Sirk spoke very movingly about how impressed he was by her soulfulness, the deep essential sadness that she never put on and never took off. She had a way of looking at life, like all major artists do.
Stanwyck once said: “I have to find a way to play my 40th fallen female in a different way than my 39th.” She achieved immortality with Double Indemnity (1944) by creating the femme fatale role, but her early Capra work might be the most revealing. Do you think she was typecast after Double Indemnity or was it simply that she did “bitchy” so well that people tend to only remember her for that?
I actually don’t think she ever got seriously typed throughout her career. She did noirs after Double Indemnity, but she also did softer films like My Reputation (1946) and The Other Love. There’s remarkable variety in all stages of her career.
Stanwyck was not one to “seek out” parts, rather she let producers approach her. But there were four roles that Stanwyck wanted desperately: Dark Victory, Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and The Fountainhead. This prompts several questions:
Two of the above were “mother” roles, implying she had an attraction to the type. What does this tell us about her?
DC: She lost her mother when she was very young. So I think that’s partly why she wanted those roles. But she also knew they were juicy roles.
2. She lost three of the above roles she wanted, and the one she got – Stella Dallas – Joel McCrea had to go to bat for her. Was she not outspoken or forceful enough in her business dealings? Was it purely her lack of studio support that left her out to sea on her desires?
DC: Samuel Goldwyn didn’t think she was “sexy” enough to play Stella Dallas! Which makes no sense to me at all. She got so many great parts in great movies. I don’t think it’s a big deal that she lost a few more flashy parts that she might have wanted.
3. She also was very much obsessed with The Fountainhead (a movie that I don’t particularly like) and parted with Warner Brothers after bringing the material to them and not getting the part. She bitterly made a very revealing comment: “I knew that woman.” How do you interpret that, knowing her as you do after so much study?
DC: I can only think that Stanwyck had this thing deep down where she thought she wanted to be tamed by a heroic individualist man or some such nonsense, like the heroine of The Fountainhead. But I don’t think that’s what she actually was drawn to in life. So this is only confusing if we don’t accept that people sometimes fool themselves about what they want based on what society is telling them. But this is actually one of the tougher questions. I can’t say it is clear to me, even now.
How would Mildred Pierce (1945) have been different in Stanwyck’s hands? Would she have gotten the coveted Oscar?
Maybe if Stanwyck had played Mildred Pierce the narrative would have been “She’s overdue, she just did Double Indemnity.” I’m sure she would have been solid in that role, but it might have led to a “make-up Oscar,” and no one likes those.
The other role she seemed to have had a “personal” involvement with was Baby Face (1933). Do we know how she contributed to crafting the character in terms of working with the creators/writers? Any other characters that she had a deliberate hand in forming?
That’s an example of a film that we know she did have some hand in shaping at the writing stage, and so that is one of her most personal projects. I don’t think she had as much involvement on subsequent scripts past that pell-mell Pre-Code period. She respected her writers.
Stanwyck the person was and continues to be a mystery. Do you feel she lived more onscreen than off?
Most definitely. And we are all the better for it.
You place Stanwyck at the top of the Classic Acting Period, along with Davis and Hepburn. What does Stanwyck have that the others don’t?
She is never false. She always levels with us. She is in touch with certain contradictions and mysteries of existence that she is able to ponder on camera with great soulfulness and detail. This is what sets her apart.
Stanwyck does not inspire the same iconic devotion and idolatry as other Classic Hollywood Queens– Davis, the Hepburns, Bergman, Monroe. People tend to discover her only after they’ve discovered her contemporaries. Why do you think this is?
She isn’t as flashy as they are. But she is the most nourishing. I feel like everyone who knows her work loves Stanwyck, pretty much. Whereas the flashier stars always have their detractors.
While Davis, Hepburn, Monroe, Crawford all worried about their legacy (in older years, and through their Estates), Stanwyck seems to have just let her work speak for herself. When you published your book in 2012, there were only 3 biographies of Stanwyck and the Ella Smith Tribute book, as well as a handful of short interviews from Stanwyck herself. (I would add that at the time you wrote your book, only DiOrio and Ella Smith had a real appreciation for Stanwyck). Also, until the most recent bio by Victoria Wilson, none of the past biographers had any access to Stanwyck herself or her close circle. Is this an indication that Stanwyck was her worst PR enemy or is there more to the story?
She was not good at all at that side of her profession. There is no question about that. She has no “lore.” Her off-screen life was often sad and unpleasant, but not in a way that touches the imagination. I feel like she knew this, instinctively. And so she let the work speak for itself. It was a wise decision. We’re always going to be coming around to her.
If someone was new to Stanwyck, what films would you recommend as “starter” films to ignite their Stanwyck passion?
I usually would recommend The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity…those two in a row should make fans of anyone.
What is the modern day actor that “carries” on the Stanwyck legacy, that most resembles Stanwyck…or was she such an original? You mentioned Jessica Lange (whom I love and should be working more often)…any other new faces that remind you of Stany?
Lange has Stanwyck’s incredible access to extreme anger. But in many ways, Stanwyck was one-of-a-kind. They broke the mold.
Any modern-day cinematic or television character you would have liked to see Stanwyck play and why?
I said on Facebook that I would love to see a young Stanwyck play Faye Dunaway’s part in Network (1976). She’d kill in that part! Otherwise, I think Stanwyck was lucky to be working in the era that she did.
JH: What do you mean, can you elaborate on this? Do you think she would have been a star in 2020?
DC: I think Stanwyck could have been a star today, and she also could have been a star in the 1970s and ‘80s. But I don’t like to think about the parts she would have had to take sometimes if she were working as a young woman in the 1970s, or today. If she were working today, Stanwyck would likely have to make her name starring on various limited series for TV. And I think it would be difficult for her to find the same continuity and variety in her work.
If Stanwyck were in front of us today, what 5 questions would you be most hard pressed to ask?
Wow! OK. We would have to be working under the assumption that I had gained her trust and she was open to any question. I would ask her about the Al Jolson incident when she was a chorus girl and what exactly happened and if she ever had any dealings with him afterward. I would ask her what happened, from her perspective, with her adopted son Dion. I would ask her if she ever used specific memories from her own life when she played a scene. I would ask her if she did actually have an affair with Robert Wagner in the way he described it. And I would ask her who were the people she had loved most in her life, and why.
If you had only one word to describe Stanwyck what would it be?
100 years from now, will Barbara Stawncyck be remembered? If so, what will her legacy be?
Yes, absolutely. I think she will be seen as the finest American actress of her time. I have no doubt about that.
Thank you Dan Callahan for your generosity in this interview and for your rich, insightful and objective analysis of Barbara Stanwyck’s art and filmography. In addition to his first book, which we cover in this interview, Dan has devoted many books to acting, with focus on the Golden Age of Hollywood, and all of them are highly recommended, as he has a unique gift of getting to the very essence of each of the artists he writes about.