The British Film Institute (BFI) is currently running a 2-month long and 23-movie Season dedicated to Barbara Stanwyck . We had the privilege to interview Geoff Andrew, it’s co-curator, we discussed his role with BFI, the institute itself, movies and, of course, Barbara Stanwyck.
Tell us a bit about yourself. All of us who love films have that one film that hooked us forever… What is the one film that made you want to take “the movie path?”
After seeing Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as a student back in 1973, I decided I wanted to work, somehow, in or with film; and I’ve done so ever since, as a programmer, critic, interviewer and lecturer. After working for many years as the editor of the film section of Time Out magazine, and writing a number of books on the cinema, I was invited in 1999 to become the programmer of what was then the National Film Theatre; its name was later changed to BFI Southbank. I continued doing that until a couple of years ago, when I became a part-time consultant – or ‘programmer-at-large’ – to the venue’s programming team.
STANWYCK SEASON AT BFI
I am very curious about the role of a curator, particularly for this Season. What all goes into arranging a 2-month long dedication to one star? Why did you choose Stanwyck?
As a long-term admirer of her work, I suggested doing a Stanwyck season to the programming team some years ago, and because the last Stanwyck season was many years ago, everyone thought it a good idea, particularly events programmer Aga Baranowska, who ended up co-curating the season with me.
Basically, when we mount a survey of an actor’s work, there simply isn’t space in the programme to do a full retrospective, so we try to put together a selection of films which show the range of their work, which show how they developed as an actor – and, of course, we focus on the best films rather than the poor or middling ones.
And then, having agreed on which films we’d like to show in an ideal situation, we pass on the list to colleagues in the programming department who research what the situation is for each film in terms of who owns the rights, who has the materials (ie on film or on digital), the condition of those materials, whether the film will be available for the dates of the season, and so on. At some point, it may transpire that some of the films on our list cannot be screened for one reason or another, so it is best to have reserve titles in mind.
How long does it take to put together a 2-month season as comprehensive as this?
From the initial proposal of the season to actually screening the films will usually require about six months at the least – that’s more or less what happened with this season – though very big or complicated seasons may take well over a year to put together; some are planned for several years.
What has been the response of the audience so far to the Stanwyck Season?
As a programmer of many years experience, I knew that the season would be popular with audiences; like me, I suspect, people admire both her acting skills – she was a model of professionalism, and never given to histrionics or overstatement – and her versatility: she was successful in a great many genres, from ‘weepie’ to western, from thriller to romance, and equally adept in serious drama and comedy. But I imagine too that people respond well to her customary ‘persona’ or image; she tended to play women who knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. She exudes strength of will, independence, and native intelligence – yet at the same time, that no-nonsense persona didn’t preclude passion; she could convey tenderness and vulnerability as well, if required.
REFLECTING ON STANWYCK
What are your favorite Stanwyck films?
My own favorite Stanwyck films would have to include Forbidden, Remember the Night, The File on Thelma Jordon, and There’s Always Tomorrow – though it’s impossible to ignore Double Indemnity. But others might prefer Ball of Fire or Forty Guns – she made so many fine films. It’s interesting how she came to be particularly associated with westerns, not usually thought of as a ‘woman’s genre’, though Stanwyck was very fond of westerns. I myself first got to know her as a boy through the 60s TV series ‘The Big Valley’, a successful western series.
Stanwyck made her last great role in Forty Guns at age 54. It is a shame she “had” to quit films so early… Looking at her contemporaries, with the notable exception of Katharine Hepburn, it seems that was the fate of actresses over 50 at the time…
It’s a pity she didn’t really work much in films after the 50s; whether that was a matter of choice (she did a lot of television, and that medium was really taking off by then) or of work offers, I don’t know. We are all too aware that many women, when they reach a certain age, tend to find it harder to get good roles in the movies due to ludicrous and unfair prejudices about age and gender.
Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar. Looking at her filmography, it seems almost impossible she never won.
I have no idea why she never won an Oscar – but then I have never attached any significance to those awards in terms of quality of achievement. You would have to ask the members of the Academy who voted during those years – though since they are probably most of them dead, that might be difficult.
While popular in her time, today Stanwyck is not the most “famous” of the Classic Film Legends, yet her “prestige” seems to have grown since her death, would you agree?
I don’t think there’s been a resurgence of interest in Stanwyck recently, because I don’t think the interest ever went away. She has always had admirers, and deservingly so. Her prestige was always high, and remains so to this day, given the number of fine films she made.
Some say Stanwyck is the most “modern” of the classic film actresses. Would you agree?
I don’t really know what is meant by ‘the most modern of classic film actresses’, so can’t really comment on that, though her evident intelligence, courage and air of independence have probably lasted better than the more ‘girlish’ or ‘submissive’ qualities once admired in certain actresses.
Do you think Stanwyck would be a star today?
I’d certainly like to think that she would find work and acclaim if she were working today – but who knows, when so much contemporary cinema is targeted at teenagers and favors escapist fare involving superheroes? I think she was probably too down-to-earth for such stuff.
If you had to “persuade” a reluctant teenager or millennial to see the Stanwyck Season or to take a look at classic B&W films, what would you tell them?
Most of Stanwyck’s films may be in black and white, and they do depict a world that is very different in many ways from our own. But apart from the obvious benefits to be had from taking a curious interest in cultures different from our own – and by ‘cultures’ I am here referring to the pre-digital past – watching Stanwyck’s movies (or indeed any classic movies, be they from Hollywood or elsewhere) is worthwhile because they do still communicate with us very successfully on an emotional level. They are about human beings, about what it is to be a human and interact with other humans. Certain things in life haven’t changed that much after all.
Plus, it is always a pleasure to see a great actor at work. What’s not to enjoy about Barbara Stanwyck films?