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,
"I've got 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."
Believe 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.' "
"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!"
But Stanwyck 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 image."
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!' "
Here 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.
Does 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.' "
But 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!' "
Stanwyck waited, 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."
Former 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."
Did 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."
Stanwyck's 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."
Did "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."
Stanwyck 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."
The 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 in."
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 wept."
(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.")
Stanwyck's 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."
Two 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.")
Now, 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 it.
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 talk-talk-talk."
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."
A 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.' "