Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, by Victoria Wilson (2013)

To get my prejudice out of the way up front: I believe Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress ever to step before a movie camera. Many of her performances remain startlingly fresh, her presence almost contemporary. It’s at once resilient and sad, marrying the confidence of a thoroughgoing professional with an uneasy watchfulness. Being abandoned by your widowed father at the age of four and having to make your own way in the world as an adolescent can do that to a girl.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to devour Victoria Wilson’s new biography. But I’d have to pace myself. Wilson’s epic is no ordinary repast but a smorgasbord, tipping the scales at over one thousand pages. And as the subtitle indicates, that’s only volume one.

Stanwyck in 1924
Stanwyck’s history – a Dickensian childhood as Ruby Stevens giving way to a career that spanned the breadth of twentieth century show business – and her status as a performer have long demanded a definitive survey. Wilson dedicated over fifteen years to the task. Her book is exhaustive and on occasion exhausting. She regularly attributes to Stanwyck quotes from studio press books or back issues of Photoplay that were clearly written by some sharpie in the publicity department. The lines not only don’t sound like the actress but scarcely read as human. Here’s Barbara, allegedly, on her character in the 1932 Edna Ferber adaptation So Big: “Selina became a farmer’s wife, and her hands became soil worn. She lost her girlish prettiness, but she became a beauty instead. And there is beauty in fine, strong hands that have not been ashamed to work in the earth.”

Wilson also insists on including every tidbit about Stanwyck reported by Hedda or Louella, no matter how irrelevant or meager the context. It’s a strange choice given Wilson’s genuine talent for concision. She regularly steps away from the framework provided by Stanwyck’s life to offer brief, vivid sketches of her collaborators like Frank Capra (who helped establish the actress’s early persona and fell in love with her), William Wellman and Stella Dallas author Olive Higgins Prouty.

The most vexing figure in Stanwyck’s life is her first husband, vaudeville titan Frank Fay. Their troubled, abusive marriage is thought to have inspired A Star is Born. Wilson skillfully dissects one of Fay’s signature routines on the page, explaining his popularity and demonstrating how his now-forgotten talent influenced (and was copied by) Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and thus every comic who borrowed from them. She even gets mileage out of Stanwyck’s second spouse Robert Taylor, the handsome if one-note actor who was briefly bigger than Gable. (Taylor’s diminished luster is perfectly summed up for me by the blank enthusiasm with which Sarah Jessica Parker says his name when guessing which celebrity her boyfriend met in Ed Wood.)

Taylor and Stanwyck
Wilson chooses to focus more on Stanwyck’s work than her relationships, which is no doubt as the lady would have wanted it. In the time covered here Stanwyck evolves quickly, moving from pre-Code shockers like Baby Face to the tortured mother love of Stella Dallas in less than five years. The book’s greatest asset is Wilson’s understanding of and appreciation for Stanwyck’s abilities as an actress. Wilson also doesn’t stint on how Stanwyck’s regular radio appearances aided her development as a performer. (Another plus: a bounty of photographs, many never before published.)

When Stanwyck provides great copy, Wilson proves more than up for the challenge. The book is particularly strong when dealing with Preston Sturges, who as a writer is responsible for Stanwyck’s first truly great performance in the Christmas dramedy Remember the Night and would direct her in the classic The Lady Eve. Wilson picks up on Night’s Gothic undercurrents, on Sturges’ nuanced dialogue and barbed warmth. She points out the marked contrast with Stanwyck’s previous film, the adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, in which the actress is stilted. Odets doggedly conjures up the real world through details – the cry of the fishmongers satirized in Barton Fink – and as such his “official art” is “artificial and stylized,” while the faded-upper-crust Sturges grounds his realism in “emotionalism, character, people and humor.” He is “high elegance and high sophistication while being banana peel low, and Barbara as an actress is freed up by it.”

The Stanwyck legend was forged in one of the great show business stories, and Wilson tells it in its full glory. Initially the movies didn’t know what to do with Stanwyck, and she in turn was suspicious of them. She was cajoled into making yet another screen test she was sure would prove fruitless. On an evening in 1931 she presented herself at Warner Brothers and found no director, no make-up man, no script. Finally, Alexander Korda arrived. He, too, was adrift in Hollywood, destined to find success back in Europe. He invited Barbara to do what she pleased while the camera rolled. She said to hell with it and performed her key scene from The Noose, the melodrama in which she made her name on Broadway. Korda, briefly struck speechless by her intensity, told her “it’s been a privilege to make this test with a real actress.” It’s a haunting moment, two gifted outcasts briefly commiserating then going their separate ways, expecting nothing. And they’re right; the studio’s assessment is that neither director nor actress has anything to offer. That melancholy punch line gives way to a more astonishing payoff when Frank Fay barges in on Frank Capra and forces him to watch the footage, setting his wife on a path that will quickly eclipse his own.

That tale and the life it produced deserve to be celebrated, and Wilson has done right by them. Steel-True is like a marathon, a long haul requiring time and commitment. When it’s finished, you feel spent and exhilarated – and immediately start planning the next run. The book ends with the world plunging into war and Stanwyck poised to play her greatest parts: Eve, Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity, not to mention one of my favorites Sorry, Wrong Number. Volume two cannot come soon enough.

If you’re in New York, be sure to attend the Film Forum’s month-long Stanwyck series, at which Victoria Wilson will be a guest.