March 2012

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

Barbara Stanwyck: A Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan

Hollywood biographers usually fall into one of two camps. They can be conservative and nostalgic -- like the Grace Kelly biography from a few years ago that primly denied possibilities of wild sexuality -- not investigating Hollywood Babylon rumors, wanting instead to protect their glittering idols and preserve them in their personas. Then there are the writers who recycle scandal and gossip (and yet also seem to have prudish impulses, wanting to restore propriety). Neither kind of biographer is really interested in truth but in denigrating his lofty subject or glorifying her; the biographies are either the tabloid's version of truth or the publicist's. I can't help assuming that scandal is closer to the truth, and that is the biography I would prefer to read, even as it has its faults.

Dan Callahan's biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman takes the high road. His motive is that not enough good biographies have been written about her. There has been much written about her contemporaries -- Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis -- and he often criticizes other actresses in order to laud her. He contrasts their "'look at me' elderly embarrassments" with Stanwyck's relative silence in old age. He is correct however that she doesn't really get her due and perhaps this is because she was less interested in her legacy, in creating an iconic persona, than other actresses were.

There is very little original research here in this critical biography. Most of what is written is plot summary and character analysis. Callahan is upfront about being more interested in her film work than her personal life. He sees Stanwyck through the prism of her work with different directors.

Like many actors from her time, Stanwyck was born with another name, one that Callahan, like most biographers, refers back to when considering an innocent pre-Hollywood Stanwyck. Ruby Stevens was born on July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn. Her childhood was poor and difficult. Her father abandoned the family and her mother died young. She was reared by her siblings and foster families. As with much of her life, there is not enough verifiable evidence to say for sure how hard things were for her, how scarred she was. This is a continuing theme. Because there is not a lot of biographical material to work with, Callahan speculates about Stanwyck's feelings using her film work as evidence or exaggerating the available facts. For instance, when noticing a photo of Stanwyck as a toddler: "her entire head seems to frown protectively, as if she's saying, 'Please don't hurt me.'" Of course, he can only really assume she was a sad child, knowing her background.

We can't help wondering who the true Barbara Stanwyck was, but of course that's impossible to know. You can't fault Callahan for trying to find out, but it is a futile effort. This is always true about biography but biographies about actors are particularly slippery. I certainly understand the effort. I love old Hollywood films and I have an abiding interest in Veronica Lake, who is known more for her hair than her acting. With Lake, I watch as many of her films as I can and read as much about her as I can find and yet I keep coming back to the truth that I just really like Sullivan's Travels.

Callahan blurs boundaries between real life and film acting. He invokes the spirit of Ruby Stevens, the teenage chorus girl when discussing one of Stanwyck's early films: "it is the shame of Ruby Stevens after one of their first nights at a mob-run nightclub, when she has gauged just what will be expected of her and what parts of her body and her soul she can manage to keep for herself."

Stanwyck is not as iconic as her contemporaries but she is known for being a wisecracking, androgynous tough girl who could be sneering and stoic and mean. Callahan attributes a lot to her Irish heritage, which seems to be reaching a bit. Her colleagues seemed to find her cold, saying that she was very disciplined and professional. Perhaps because of those attributes, she seems to have been more of a director's actress. Sam Fuller who directed her in Forty Guns said: "To work with Stanwyck is to work with the happy pertinence of professionalism and emotion. She's superb as a queen, slut, matriarch, con girl or on a horse... her form or class or appeal or whatever you want to call it stems from tremendous sensitivity and thousands of closeted thoughts she can select at will, at the right moment, for the exact impact." Often she is a femme fatale and starred in many pre-Code and noir films such as Baby Face (in which she read Nietzsche) and Double Indemnity that used these qualities. Callahan credits Frank Capra for discovering the value of her naturalism in the early '30s at the start of her career when she was more open.

It was disappointing to find out that Stanwyck was a right-wing Ayn Rand fan whose second husband Robert Taylor was the only major movie star to (happily) name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. They founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Her politics were a surprise to me because she usually played strong characters who may be punished for their crimes, but are steely, conniving, and pleasure-seeking. She played Annie Oakley! Though she wasn't mentally ill or addicted to drugs and is contrasted with Marilyn Monroe in her work habits, from the beginning to the end, her life sounds unhappy and lonely. Her politics are attributed to her abusive first husband, Frank Fay who actually threw their baby in the pool. Callahan notes that A Star is Born was based on their relationship. Her second marriage was less violent; however Robert Taylor's infidelity prompted her only suicide attempt. Despite Taylor's affairs with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, he was rumored to be gay. Barbara Stanwyck was rumored to be in a relationship with Helen Ferguson, her publicist; however Callahan does not spend much time on these rumors.

The best part of this biography is Callahan's analysis of Stella Dallas, a melodrama about a woman's self-sacrificing yet sabotaging love for her child. Stella Dallas was Stanwyck's favorite of her films, an interesting and disturbing fact considering that she was such an unloving mother to her son Dion. Callahan has insights into the character Stanwyck plays. Of the final wrenching scene he says: "It's her fate to be a fan, to be literally outside looking in, and she has accepted it." The character of Stella Dallas was all shadow and Barbara Stanwyck knew how to play it.

Barbara Stanwyck: A Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN: 978-1617031830
272 pages