During last year’s birthday blogathon, my post focused on Barbara Stanwyck’s all-but-invisible film, A Lost Lady. While a fan for eons, I first saw this movie only a few years ago. Since then, I couldn’t get the film out of my mind. What was it about Barbara and her performance that effected me so deeply? Even writing last year’s blog, I was at a loss to explain it.
The opening scenes of A Lost Lady show a wealthy young woman standing on the threshold of her dreams. At the extravagant engagement party that opens the film, Stanwyck’s face, her eyes, her voice, her every movement conveys pure joy; the deep happiness of a woman in love with the man she desires and admires. She and her fiance are stealing away for a private rendezvous when they are blocked on the grand staircase by an outraged man who accuses the would-be groom of cheating with his wife, offering a forgotten, inscribed cigarette case as proof of the liaison. As Barbara’s character confirms, the case belongs to her betrothed, the wronged husband suddenly draws a gun and shoots him at point blank range. Barbara screams as she watches the body roll down the stairs then freezes in place. In an instant of time, and with barely a ghost of movement, Stanwyck is able to convey shock, sorrow, disgust, and utter emptiness.
After countless viewings, it finally hit me. What I see, what is so powerfully distilled in the first few minutes of this film, is the projection of the romantic soul.
Even though I’ve been interested in Barbara Stanwyck for many years, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing her described as romantic. She is often called strong, tough, self reliant. Of course, she was all of those, and those qualities are not opposed to, but required by romanticism.
Let me explain what I mean when I use the word “romantic”, particularly as it applies to romanticism in art. Motion pictures are a form of art. The term “romantic” has been used to define films so capriciously that the true meaning of the word is lost amidst the clutter of inaccuracy. Most often, the word refers to works that tell a “love story”. Stories of genuine love can be romantic, but that is only a part of what constitutes a romantic soul.
The essence of classical romanticism in art is the creation of a world not as it is, but as it might and ought to be. It celebrates individualism, courage, resilience, defiance of convention, and an unwavering dedication to fight for what one believes is right.
For Barbara Stanwyck, her world was acting and her characters. At an era where actors deliberately chose to showcase their acting abilities through mannerisms and affectation, Stanwyck chose to create her characters from within, as natural and realistic as they should be. Her driving ambition was to portray her characters as she believed they might be and ought to be portrayed. That’s romanticism. She did not write the scripts or create the characters she played, but her romantic soul is what drove her to make each character seem as natural and real as possible. Of course, the most unnatural thing in the world is to make a figment of someone’s imagination seem natural. The task is made even more difficult when both story and character are poorly or incompletely drawn. In many films, this required Barbara to reveal a humanity and depth to the women she played beyond what was written, all without deviating from the actual script. That she was able to accomplish this so consistently over the long course of her career, is nothing short of astounding.
Barbara’s entire life as an actress was devoted to portraying women who would be real to her, and, through her performances, real to the people who saw them. To accomplish this, she constantly chose, fought for and refined the direction of her life’s work. The independence that had sustained Stanwyck through her early years was key in her decision-making. Like all genuine romantics, Barbara Stanwyck deliberately chose the direction of her life. Rather than drifting into dancing and then acting, she choose each step of her path, not just as a way out, but as her one and only way forward. Others may have created the name, but Ruby Stevens made Barbara Stanwyck.
Stanwyck was determined to avoid long term, exclusive contracts that would tie her to the whims of a single studio, as the last thing she wanted was to have her work, life and image shaped by these institutions. While other leading ladies craved the security of a studio, the glamour and plum parts that would show them only at their best, Barbara shunned glamour, wardrobe and image in favor of bringing to life a wide range of characters in the best stories she could find. That’s romanticism. Fearing the creative restrictions that would inevitably come with long term studio ties, she nonetheless recognized that she could only make films in association with a studio. Thus, not every role she accepted was her first choice. She did, however, negotiate the option to reject a certain number of roles before risking suspension. Despite this safeguard, she still was suspended several times for declining a number of projects she deemed to be sub-par. Given this situation, she selected the best parts she could from the often limited options available to her.
With some exceptions (Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, A Great Man’s Lady, The Other Love, the Capra films), most of Barbara’s films and characters were not in and of themselves examples of romanticism. Yet the commitment of her romantic soul to the women she portrayed made every one of her films something special – at least as long as the camera was on her. Stanwyck was unafraid to make a less than great film: her only fear was to deliver a less than perfect performance. Barbara would play any part that intrigued her. She once said she would take on any character: heroine, troubled soul or villain, but that she would not play a victim.
Barbara portrayed largely sympathetic women throughout the 1930’s, and she excelled at playing women who did not, and would not, adhere to the conventions of the time. They had their own ideas and ideals, their own adventures, their own clearly expressed sexuality, and movie-goers, male and female alike, only wanted more.
With her dramatic talents clearly established by the 1930s, Barbara took the risk of trying comedy. Bringing the same focus and commitment to excellence she had in her dramatic performances, she found within herself the subtler nuances required to bring realism and depth to these “lighter roles”. The ultimate example of this, of course, came in her portrayal of Jean/Eve in The Lady Eve. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate romantic film.
That said, Stanwyck’s stock in trade was drama, and while she had no fear of playing “bad” girls, Barbara initially expressed reluctance at depicting the absolute evil of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. She accepted the role only after Billy Wilder dared her to take it. Most leading ladies of that time and in their late thirties, as Barbara was, were extremely concerned about their images and maintaining the illusion of the glamour they enjoyed in their youth. They never would have risked, as Stanwyck did, having fans hate them by playing an out and out villain. At a time where villains where portrayed as overly exaggerated characters, dehumanized and one dimensional, Stanwyck set the standards for future femme fatales, dignifying those characters, giving them a third dimension, because even villains deserve a worthy characterization, as it should be. That’s romanticism.
As always, once Barbara was in, she was all in. Phyllis Dietrichson was the most fatal of femme fatales, without a scrap of sentiment or mercy. Phyllis is certainly not a romantic character, but she could only be so convincingly brought to life by a romantic soul. Surely only such a spirit could show us this devious schemer in a way that we somehow root for her in spite of ourselves.
The script gives no real clues as to what made Phyllis the unrepentant murderess she was, but beyond watching the murder that smells like honeysuckle unfold, we have to know why. Why is Phyllis the way she is? What’s in her past? What’s happened to her? Was she born without a heart or was it crushed out of her? With no obvious goodness to hold onto, we still want her to make it “straight down the line”, or, in this case, to literally get away with murder. In the end, knowing she was likely lying with her last breath, we still don’t want to see Phyllis go.
We know Phyllis is evil. Those blackest of shadows that pass through Stanwyck’s eyes in the back of the car as her husband is strangled chill to the bone. Still, there’s a glimmer behind those shadows. Something that creates a hazy barrier between what we see and what we know. Phyllis is unquestionably evil, but is there a human being in there somewhere? Perhaps it’s only the essential Stanwyck we see behind the shadows. The character is evil, the spirit that created her is not.
Barbara Stanwyck’s acting is often described as modern. She seems modern because she is without the particular manners and mannerisms that defined the images of many leading ladies of the time. She also seems modern because the actions and emotions she illuminates and evokes through her characters are not only natural and timely, but essential and timeless.
Lily Powers (Baby Face) is a sexually abused young girl in the early 1930s. At the same time, she is every abused woman of every time and any time, using whatever powers she has to escape to a better place.
Ann Mitchell (Meet John Doe) is a driven, disillusioned idealist in pre-World War II America, using a homeless ballplayer to rescue her job. Simultaneously, she is every cynic whose idealism is rekindled by seeing their core values demonstrated in real life.
Kathy Doyle (Crime of Passion) is an intelligent, independent career woman in the late 1950s whose desire for a permanent relationship leaves her with a husband she loves, but utterly stifled by the mind-numbing ennui of everyday suburbia. She is any woman so inescapably shackled to the ever-turning capstan of mindless conformity that violent action seems the only viable path to escape.
Of the films listed above, only Meet John Doe makes any attempt at romantic art. Yet each of them is touched by the romantic spirit created by Stanwyck’s work. She infuses each character with a unique dignity and humanity that not only draw from the script, but go beyond it.
For me, Barbara Stanwyck isn’t just a romantic soul, she is the premier romantic soul of the screen. Her work was her life, her fight, her purpose. Through her work she shows us acting as it might be and ought to be. Characters became natural and real because Barbara Stanwyck made them so.
To paraphrase a line from Clash by Night, it is the romantic soul of Barbara Stanwyck that makes us feel like more than we are, not less.