SALUTING STANWYCK: A LIFE ON FILM
'When I'm Doing a Role, a Good Role, I'm Being Someone Other Than Me . . .'
April 5, 1987
By PAUL ROSENFIELD,
Be it Marwyck, the Irish farmhouse with
stables and brood mares where she lived in the '40s, or the Broadway
apartment she shared in the '20s with two other chorus girls, Barbara
Stanwyck has always lived in a style that says actress . On the big
front door of the Beverly Hills house where she now lives is a small
mirror–for guests to check their faces: It's the perfect movie star
front door. And Barbara Stanwyck answers it herself.
an IQ of 7," she says, quickly leading the way to a red-carpeted living
room. "I've been working with barbells and I threw my back out. So I'm
wearing a corset. You can't see it, of course. On top of that my throat
is raw. Two things wrong is one too many. But every moment from now
until April 9, I live in absolute terror. Believe me."
her: On Thursday, Barbara Stanwyck receives the American Film
Institute's Life Achievement Award at the Beverly Hilton. And the woman
who is practically Hollywood's equivalent of Garbo (in terms of
privacy) is not exactly overwhelmed. "Honored, yes, but I tried to get
out of the damn thing," she confessed on a recent afternoon, sighing.
"But (AFI president) Bonita Granville worked on me, and so did George
Stevens Jr., and then they got Charlton Heston to work on me. Chuck
said, 'You will be there.' So I will be there." Finally, reluctantly,
Stanwyck had told AFI co-chairman Stevens she would appear. But she
would do only that–appear on Thursday.
The question is why.
Stanwyck, in a red jogging suit serving coffee and answering phones and
right up close looking nothing like her 79 years, is something to see.
She has an almost unlined face, with the kind of Irish skin that begs
for a camera. The eyes still blaze for a close-up. She's lucid, and
best of all the voice still sounds like coffee grounds. So why not be
happy about the AFI? After all, the former orphan from Brooklyn has
belonged to Hollywood now for 60 years.
"When I'm doing a role,
a good role, I'm being someone other than me," Stanwyck said, taking a
swivel chair, and swiveling. "See, I'm a true Irishman, and I glide
with the leprechauns. They say the Irish are brash, but there's also a
quietness. Sometimes I can sit a whole evening and say nothing–but I
absorb everything. I happen to like being alone a lot. I'm called a
little nuts. I call it concentration. So I have a shell I creep into.
So? To my friends who don't like it, I say, 'That's too bad.' "
Times film critic Edwin Schallert calls "Ball of Fire" the "It Happened One Night" of the 1941-42 season.
her fans, Stanwyck would say something else. She admits that, "Yes, the
work was good, but I'm not Albert Schweitzer." In fact, Stanwyck has an
uncanny way of looking at herself almost in the third person. "I'm
always surprised I looked so well on the screen," she said quietly.
"Some of the pictures I never saw, and I stopped going to rushes in the
early '30s." Stanwyck explained that she took the advice of director
Frank Capra, her Hollywood mentor.
"It was one of the tricks he
taught me, not to go," Stanwyck said matter-of-factly. "Mr. Capra said,
'You never really look at yourself. You're always looking at the veins
sticking out of your neck or how you hold your hands. So never look at
yourself while you are working. Only go later, when the thing is done.'
I was noticing the dainty things, the feminine things, and missing the
larger picture. Capra had such patience with me!"
was a director's darling, right from the start. From Capra she segued
to Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, King Vidor, John Ford, Preston Sturges,
Rouben Mamoulian, William Wellman, George Stevens and almost everyone
else. (Several directors, like Cecil B. De Mille and Douglas Sirk,
claimed that Stanwyck was not only their favorite actress, but also
their favorite professional.) Instinctively, too, the directors knew
what material to give the actress. Stanwyck was never typecast, thus
she's not now remembered by a particular image. For a star, that works
both for and against you. "I never wanted to play the same things,"
Stanwyck said, adding, "Only once was I really worried in terms of
The movie was Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." "I was
scared because I'd never before played an out-and-out killer. I was
scared and so was Fred (MacMurray). I thought, 'This role is gonna
finish me.' And I remember Billy saying, 'An actress is supposed to
play everything. Are you an actress or are you a mouse?' So I thought
about it, and I thought, 'Who am I kidding? What am I hiding behind?' I
said to myself, 'Shut up trying to analyze everything. Say yes or no!' "
Stanwyck's hard-on-herself streak was apparent. Orphans who create
their own lives usually learn early not to blame others. "Yes or no" is
a recurrent phrase when you talk to Stanwyck. "Once you say yes, you do
it," she said several times–and this applied to being interviewed as
well. Originally Stanwyck said no, and said no again. But when she
finally reconsidered, that was it. Nothing was off-the-record, but also
nothing was extraneous. In character, and in her work, Stanwyck isn't
wasteful. Ambivalence is something she tackles.
Sept. 10, 1941: Three months before "Ball of Fire" is released, an item in a Hedda Hopper column announces Billy Wilder wants to be a director even if it means breaking up "one of the greatest writing teams of our time."
Yet she breathed
deeply, surprising even herself at the thought that she might have
refused "Double Indemnity." "Once I said yes, I was awfully glad.
During the making of it, Fred would go to rushes. I remember once the
next day he said, 'You're not acting. You're enjoying it.' And I
remember saying, 'Fred, really, how was I?' And very candidly he looked
at me and said, 'I don't know about you–but I was wonderful!' And that
was such a true remark. Actors only look at themselves."
Stanwyck look now at herself on screen? Perhaps no other star of her
magnitude has both the body of work (88 films) and her longevity–she
first faced movie cameras in 1927. "Do I watch 'The Late Show'?"
Stanwyck asked rhetorically. "No, I'm in bed during 'The Late Show.' "
to the point: Does she derive some satisfaction from 60 years on the
screen? "It's not . . . satisfaction exactly. Let's say I did what I
was supposed to do. I did my work." Un-self-consciously, Stanwyck
pointed to herself and said: "I was no beauty. I was an average-looking
person. When I was first starting out–the director is now dead so I
guess I can't hurt him–I was screen-tested. This director put me in
front of tapestries and screens and nothing worked. I remember he just
sunk his head, in despair, and said to me, 'I have tried everything!
But look at the way you look! It's hopeless!' "
then reacted: "I got my Irish anger up and said, 'Look–they sent for
me! I didn't ask to come to Hollywood!' " She didn't even want to stay,
in fact. "I was a chorus girl, and I wanted to be on the stage," said
Stanwyck, irreverently. "The movies weren't my medium. I'd done
'Burlesque' in New York. Then (RKO's) Joe Schenck brought me out here."
Stanwyck neglected to add that Schenck brought Stanwyck out in a
private railway car with her first husband, vaudevillian Frank Fay, in
tow. "But my first movie ("Broadway Nights," 1927) bombed. I didn't
like the work, I missed audiences, but I did another film ("Locked
Door," 1929) and it bombed, too. So really, I intended to go back East."
orphan Ruby Stevens was looking for a niche, and Broadway seemed to be
it. Her stage saga is something Stanwyck can still marvel at, and as
she tells the story you feel even now she's still startled at her life.
"I applied for a job in a dramatic show, and within the show was a
nightclub scene. This was during Prohibition. The man doing it, Willard
Mack, was a writer-producer-director-actor–and he saw something in me.
He said, 'You can have this part out-of-town, but it's already been
cast for New York.' I was a dancer, not a great one, but I knew left
from right. But I was no actress. He just began training me, day and
night. Taught me how to walk, taught me nuances, taught me tricks to
use and not to use."
Then, bingo: "The girl on Broadway was
replaced, and I got the part! Willard Mack was behind me; he talked 'em
into it! He taught me a lot but most of all he taught me to use
this"–Stanwyck pointed her index finger at her forehead–"to think.
Acting is thinking." It was no wonder Stanwyck wanted to stay on
Broadway. Had she not in the mid-'20s married Fay, who was himself
toying with Hollywood, she might not ever have come West. But if the
initial stint here was disaster, there was a lifesaver waiting in the
wings. His name was Capra.
"Again, here was a man who saw
something. Mr. Capra took me and taught me film. He put me in 'Ladies
of Leisure' (1930) and, well. . . ." What did Capra teach Stanwyck?
This time she pointed to her eyes. "These are the greatest tools in
film," she said simply. "Mr. Capra taught me that. I mean, sure, it's
nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie
acting . . . watch the eyes."
It's rarely noted these days, but striptease artist Betty Rowland was
known in the 1940s as the "Ball of Fire" and she was a consultant on
Listening to Stanwyck, it becomes
clear she has–with major stardom and barely a year off since the late
'20s– an awful lot to tell. Though reclusive, she's articulate about
acting–not at all non-verbal. "I marvel at people who have theories
about acting," she said mock-modestly. "I just go and do the work." Yet
listening to her you begin to grasp how screen acting works. "Frank
Capra taught me that if you can think it, you can make the audience
know it. You can make them know what you are going to do. On the stage,
it's mannerisms. On the screen, your range is shown in your eyes."
the Stanwyck gaze work offscreen for her as a woman, as it did
onscreen? Star magnetism often evaporates in the living room–unless
there's a camera whirring in the background. Stanwyck's private life
has been just that, private, and because she hasn't done Barbara
Walters or a book tour (or a book) or "The Tonight Show" or anything
media-wise, we know her as Martha Ivers or Annie Oakley or Mae Doyle or
Phyllis Dietrichson. The public knows less of Barbara Stanwyck than
they do of Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, her only peers. Do woman
and actress differ?
"I dunno," shrugged Stanwyck. "If something
has worked, it's worked. If I analyzed it too much, it would destroy
what they buy in me." Though Billy Wilder says that Barbara Stanwyck
knows not only every line of her own dialogue but other actors'
dialogue too–Stanwyck again shrugs it off. "I couldn't take a part and
tear it to pieces, analyzing it. See, I'd rather make a mistake than
lose the vitality."
It was the vitality that catapulted
Stanwyck, that and her willingness to try any role, to not lock herself
in. Example: "Ball of Fire," Howard Hawks' vintage 1942 romantic comedy
featuring the he-she chemistry of Stanwyck and Gary Cooper. (And the
classic comedy dialogue of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.) She's
Sugarpuss O'Shea, the yum-yum girl, actually a stripper who falls for
egghead Cooper. When she dances "Drum Boogie," with Gene Krupa behind
her, the chorus girl is in her element. "I'm mink coat–I'm no bungalow
apron," she tells Cooper, who goes on to tell her, "You have an
extremely disturbing body." Stanwyck beams when you tell her you ran
the picture only the night before.
"One day I asked Mr. Wilder
what it was about, and he said, 'Oh, simple. It's Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs.' Which was both true and brilliant. They didn't want me
for the picture. They cast it with Ginger Rogers. The gossip then was
that she wouldn't do it because the part was, well, a hooker really.
And Ginger's morals and beliefs wouldn't let her play it. Me, I didn't
give a damn."
Stanwyck talking is like Stanwyck acting in one
way: The Voice. "I had it from the beginning, God save me!" she roared,
shaking her head. "One day on the set of some carnival picture, I saw
some boy, maybe 13 years old, really staring at me. I thought, 'Maybe
there's something he doesn't like. Why is he staring at me in such a
strange way?' So I asked him, and he said, 'I was wondering who you
sound like . . . and I figured it out. You sound like Mr. Ed.' It was
such an honest remark, so like a child should be."
own childhood is a subject unspoken. In today's post-Freudian
movie-star-mentality, we tend to "understand" stars in terms of Bette
Davis' stage mother Ruthie or Katharine Hepburn's liberal doctor
father. "I know," Stanwyck agreed, "but I haven't got it to fall back
on. I didn't know my parents." Here Stanwyck tightens up slightly, then
gives a what-the-hell look. "In interviews, I always used to refuse
questions about childhood. But all right, let's just say I had a
terrible childhood. Let's say that 'poor' is something I understand."
"poor" lead to ambition? "It led to dreams," Stanwyck answered. "I used
to dream when I was little that somebody got me all mixed up, that I
belonged to nobility. That my parents had been very rich. Again, that's
because I understood poor. This dream kept me going." And driving? "I
just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat," Stanwyck
returned. "What those two men–Willard Mack and Frank Capra–saw in me
I still don't know."
What Stanwyck saw in herself was
discipline. She looked skyward, almost reverently, when the word came
up. "As a chorus girl," she said like it was yesterday, "I danced even
when I had pleurisy. You can't take a deep breath with pleurisy, so you
take a short breath. And you go on, until you run out of breath. I
danced with blisters on my heels because I didn't want an understudy to
take my place. I had to learn discipline as a chorus girl, or be fired.
If you didn't want to be fired, you showed up on time. Maybe today
people have outside incomes, I don't know, I don't get friendly with
them. But I didn't have an outside income."
Yet by 1944 the IRS
named Barbara Stanwyck the highest-paid woman in America. From 1930-57,
she did a minimum of two pictures a year, sometimes even four or five.
Yet it wasn't workaholism, according to the actress: "I was afraid
they'd get somebody better, frankly. I never really thought I had any
clout. For a lot of years I was free-lancing, by choice, but I think
discipline stays with you. It's this fear that maybe somebody can come
in and take over. Maybe a Redford or a Streep can take the luxury of a
year off, but I never thought I could. Of course, we were more workable
in those days. And they make more money now. Anyway, I never had
self-assurance about leaving."
What she had, according to every
source living or dead, was manners. Barbara Stanwyck on a movie set was
everybody's favorite; the crews called her "Missy" and studio bosses
called her cooperative. Stanwyck has an unusual fix on temperament–she
isn't naive or apolitical; rather, she's practical . "This is how I
felt," she said, addressing the issue. "If you have something to say,
you should say it before you start a picture. Say it in the confines of
where it should be said, in an office. If you didn't win, at least
there was time for them to tell you why you didn't win."
insists she fought, but "I only fought for the right things. My concern
was for the role; if I didn't believe it, I couldn't make an audience
believe it. I didn't want anything else, just that the thing be
believable. . . . If I am secure in what I am playing, then nothing can
touch me. And so there's no reason to be temperamental."
answer was neat, but Stanwyck wasn't done. "An Eloise or a Joe could
walk away, but that went on around me. It wasn't me walking. People
picked on such silly things, like, 'Why can't I open my purse now?' I
don't see where that has anything to do with acting. Also it's not what
you get paid for. If you are worried about a pocketbook, you are in
trouble already. But if you are worried, why not quietly work it out
ahead of time?"
Stanwyck was savvy enough to concentrate on
acting. If she was less glamorous than, say, Dietrich, she was sexier
than, say, Davis. Rather than being an iron butterfly, though, she was
really one of the boys. She disavows the notion that she was
technically smart about films. "I'd say to the cameraman, 'Don't teach
me, take care of me.' Still to this day I don't know which is my better
side, left or right. Because if I thought about that stuff, then I'd be
technical. I don't want to look at myself, because then I am looking at
me. And what I do in a role is not me. I could put my mouth on without
a mirror. How? Because I know where my mouth is. People would say,
'What if it smears?' And I'd say, 'Then the makeup man fixes it. That's
his job. We all have our jobs.' "
Stanwyck isn't Norma Desmond
(the faded star in Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard"). She isn't a dweller on
past decades. Yet the notion amuses her. "I see things," she said
smiling. "I have instincts. Many times before somebody says something,
I know what they'll say. A couple of times people said, 'You are
weird,' so I don't do it anymore. Nancy Sinatra (Sr.) says, 'You've
been here before,' and who knows? Other people say senility is setting
It's more like reality. Director Douglas Sirk said Stanwyck
was "more expressive than any actress I ever worked with," adding: "She
had depth as a person. There is this amazing tragic stillness about
her, and there is nothing the least bit phony. She isn't capable of
phony." Film historian James Harvey may have hit it on the head when he
wrote that Stanwyck's voice suggests "not whisky or disillusionment or
sexual provocation as much as it does the quite unsentimental sound of
tears . . . tears sensibly surmounted but somehow, somewhere, fully
(This is not meant to imply Stanwyck is humorless; when
ex-husband Frank Fay made a Broadway comeback in "Harvey," Stanwyck
didn't attend, claiming, "I've seen all the rabbits Fay has to offer.")
second, and last, marriage ended 35 years ago. Her husband was Robert
Taylor, and the two of them were the stuff of Hollywood legend. From
1936, when they first worked together (in "This Is My Affair"), to
1965, when they reunited on screen (in William Castle's "Night
Walker"), Stanwyck and Taylor seemed to be the cream of Hollywood
coupledom. Stanwyck's star was brighter, but Taylor had the cushion of
an MGM contract when such contracts counted. Together they were
athletic and attractive and productive, and when it ended the
professional weepers shed tears for Stanwyck–and claimed she never got
over Robert Taylor. Stanwyck hasn't discussed Taylor publicly, and one
doesn't feel she has to. Yet it was she who brought up his name. The
subject was social Hollywood.
"I was only social when I was
married to Bob," she said, being smart enough to realize the omission
of Robert Taylor from her "story" would be a true omission. "He was
under contract to Metro, and they made you– made, you –go out two or
three nights a week. So I used to go out with Bob. I was his wife."
careers, one marriage; the equation has to be hard. Stanwyck looked
intensely into the observer's eyes. "Living is hard," she said
knowingly. "Getting along with another person is hard. When it doesn't
work out, when it falls apart, there's pain. You say I'm known as
someone who takes care of herself. It's true. But I worked hard at the
marriage because I wanted it." Stanwyck seemed to have perspective on
the subject, saying she never thought of marrying again. ("I'm
concentrating on work," she told Hedda Hopper at the time of the
divorce from Taylor. "What that takes is serenity, beauty, quiet,
friends when I need them, and the valuable state of being alone.")
out of the blue, Stanwyck said: "Bob was bored. It took me a long time
to accept that. To understand it. He said he wanted to be a married
bachelor. And I remember telling him that every man who ever lived
wants that, wants it both ways. . . . The pain followed. But it comes
with the territory."
The territory was work. The roles had a
range probably unmatched– by anyone. From murderess ("Blowing Wild")
to other woman ("Forbidden") to reporter ("Meet John Doe"). From
invalid ("Sorry Wrong Number," for which she received one of her four
Academy Award nominations) to gold digger ("The Lady Eve") to
evangelist ("Miracle Woman"). From mistress ("Executive Suite") to
cattle queen ("Forty Guns") to actress ("All I Desire"). From
shoplifter ("Remember the Night") to burnt-out case ("Clash By Night")
to chorine ("Ladies of Burlesque").
The cost, on some level, was
a private life. "But in those days we could at least come home and have
a civilized dinner, even a social hour," Stanwyck reasoned. "It was a
rational day from 9 to 6; now, working on TV, you have to be up at 4.
Four a.m. to 10 p.m. is tough on a woman. I can't imagine actors today
sustaining a marriage. Or coming home and listening to kids. Kids need
to be listened to." (Stanwyck's adopted son, Dion, has been out of her
life for decades. He goes unmentioned.) "I don't know how TV actors
have time for spouses and children. At night, you have a pot of soup
and go to sleep. It's a brutal life."
Stanwyck knows. Though she
adored the four seasons as the matriarch Barkley in "Big Valley," she
had no fun at all with "The Colbys" last season as the sister of Colby
patriarch Charlton Heston. She refers to the sudser as "that turkey. .
. . It wasn't acting, it was just the same scene every week, in a
different dress. I mean, you open your mouth and what comes out is not
dialogue! I don't have very much integrity, but I have enough integrity
that I got out."
How did she get into the turkey in the first
place? Stanwyck explained that her house burned down, and it was either
work or wait around L'Ermitage, where she was temporarily living. "And
then things were told one way that worked out another way. Aaron
(Spelling, producer of 'The Colbys') is a kind man, but the telling of
it was better than it was on paper. I wanted a legal out, and I got it.
At the beginning, I told Aaron, 'If it doesn't gel, I want to be able
to get out without scrapes.' So I did. Aaron asked me to come back for
four or six shows, but that doesn't work. Four or six appearances hurts
the rhythm the show does have. When you can't win, there's no point
wasting your life. Don't be a bore. Move on. I got out nicely." Also,
and importantly, she also didn't bad-mouth the show while appearing on
Stanwyck's understandable ax is with modern writing, TV or
otherwise. When you've had Brackett-and-Wilder dialogue (or Odets or
O'Casey), you come to expect something. Her sneakered foot hit the
floor when writing was discussed. "On 'Colbys,' I said, 'Give me
something to work with! You're not letting me work.' My work is in
there," Stanwyck said, pointing to another wing of the house. "In
there, I go over and over a scene. Not only the words. You see, acting
is silence, sometimes, when it works. On 'Colbys,' they were giving me
Certainly writers paid more attention to stars
once upon a time. "The Philadelphia Story," for example, was tailored
by Philip Barry to a T for Katharine Hepburn. Stanwyck singles out
"Stella Dallas" (1937, her first Oscar nomination). "She wasn't me,
that woman, but she was a woman I understood completely. She was good,
cheap but good, and I could play her. Sam Goldwyn made sure everything
was first-class. He may have come out of the penny arcade, but he took
a lot with him–and what he took he used." But writers? "Writers then
knew a part of you. I could never answer a question about a character
until I was playing her, so I was no help to writers. But writers used
to look at your work, and they knew a certain part of you."
part of Barbara Stanwyck has stayed with her characters. Or been left
behind. "When you finish," she said slowly, "you walk off the set and a
little part of yourself stays there. It's gone and done and you did it
and you feel a little bit of emptiness after it's over. You thought it
had left you, but it hadn't. It's that damn Irish in me. You say to
yourself, 'I hope she lives.' "