Actress Files: Barbara Stanwyck
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1948 Best Actress Oscar to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda)
Why I Waited: I took a lengthy tour of early Stanwyck about a year ago but stalled out around Double Indemnity. Her post-Phyllis period is much less familiar to me and, I must admit, more uneven based on what I have seen. Still, who doesn't look forward to 90 minutes in bed with a freaked-out Babs? By all rights, she ought to have reaped twice as many nominations as she did, and I wanted her counted among my final group.
The Performance: All of my last three profile subjects, Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland, and Irene Dunne, were contenders again in the 1948 Best Actress race. Most people today and a sizable ratio of them at the time thought de Havilland's asylum patient in The Snake Pit was the most deserving nominee, give or take that her even more deserving sister, Joan Fontaine, was inexplicably missing from the list for Letter from an Unknown Woman. All of these ladies were bested by second-time nominee Jane Wyman, for not speaking a word as the mute rape victim of Johnny Belinda, defending her unhappily begotten baby with a double-barrel shotgun. The fifth nominee, effectively treated as such in contemporary journalism, was Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, giving a virtual inverse of the Wyman performance. Bedridden and reliant on the telephone, Stanwyck's performance is extravagantly concentrated on her voice. Wyman was backed into a corner, killing in self-defense; Stanwyck starts out in a corner, trying to stave off her own murder, the plotting of which she horrifyingly overhears when the operator misdirects one of her calls. But what if this isn't a misdirection? What if her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), whom she intended to ring, is one of her would-be assassins?
A lot of lurid stuff goes on in Johnny Belinda and in Sorry, Wrong Number, which might sounds like a point of connection except that Johnny has the romantic luster and the improbable optimism of a prestige project. Along with The Snake Pit, it was the lead nomination-earner in its year. (How often could you say that about any two recent vehicles made as showpieces for their headlining actresses?) Sorry, Wrong Number, though, is one of the few and one of the first shabby shockers to make its way into the Best Actress derby. Paramount treated the film with some care, given its established commodity value as a celebrated radio play starring Agnes Moorehead. They made plenty of money from it, too, and Anatole Litvak, the same director who later helmed the tonily dressed but visually inert Anastasia, fills the movie with the kinds of ornate sequence shots and camera movements that prove the technical ambitions of the filmmakers. Still, Sorry, Wrong Number feels akin to subsequent Best Actress vehicles like Sudden Fear and The Star: snapshots of major stars flirting with B-grade disreputability, demonstrating the abilities and the magnetism that have made them superstars, but also disclosing some untidy, serrated edges in those moments of extreme emotion toward which the films keep pushing them. You can't always differentiate whether these ladies are enjoying their strolls down darker, rougher avenues or whether an odor of desperation, maybe even exhaustion, is wafting into their careers.
I don't mean this as strict criticism, but if anything, Stanwyck's performance is one of the elements that make Sorry, Wrong Number seem like dubious exploitation, particularly if we compare it to all that fancy camera choreography. Let's be clear: you do have to know what you're doing to inhabit such an aggravated, ultimately hysterical pitch for 90 minutes without stalling the film or fatiguing the audience. Stanwyck's stamina helps to make Sorry, Wrong Number feel like a persuasively real-time suspenser, and though it's hard to imagine showing up to set for so many days in a row, instantly ready to leap these scales of intensity, she pulled it off. In individual moments, you see her wit and her resourcefulness in bright lights. Her varsity letter in cigarette-wielding is all she needs in the early scenes to establish that Leona Stevenson, incapacitated though she is, is no helpless victim by temperament, even if the screenplay does toss her into the deep waters of panic fairly early. Leona even finds time for a few puffs as she re-cradles the phone following that overheard confab about snuffing her out, before she moves ahead with a call to the authorities. Sometimes, Stanwyck's gifts serve primarily to help her past some flaw in Lucille Fletcher's plotting, as when she has to achieve such levels of terror that Leona actually hangs up on an operator whose help she badly needs, but without making the audience retract our sympathies in the way we usually do when the marked victims in horror movies start behaving like ignoramuses. My favorite moment in the performance is probably her disbelieving reaction shot during a flashback scene to her first date with Lancaster, a low-rung employee in her father's pharmaceutical empire who can't figure out what she stands to gain from taking up with him. Stanwyck doesn't need a word to telegraph the answer, just a wickedly lascivious stare, curled into a smile at his virility and also his obliviousness. Especially in a film that tends to hamper her distinctive but formidable carnality, it's a great moment, also providing a rare flicker of humor in this character.
All the same, too many of these compliments conjure the reverse specters of what is too limited in the part, or too coarsely unexplored in the performance, or both. Lancaster creates some trouble by keeping Henry from looking remotely interested in his courtship with Leona; he's still a new enough actor that he hasn't learned to employ that Mount Rushmore face with more subtlety, and he's too quick to give Henry a motive. Still, his dollar-chasing selfishness should never have been a surprise to Leona, even if this particularly lethal scheme isn't something you'd automatically see coming, and Stanwyck's omission of any signs of how Leona responds to or rationalizes Henry's manifest reluctance about their marriage leaves the character looking a little dim. Maybe she feels she's lucky to snare any husband, much less such a hunky one, but Leona shares so much of Stanwyck's typical, brazen self-confidence that this explanation doesn't scan, either. Maybe all Leona wants is a sex object or a pet, given her fierce individualism or her insuperable bond with her rich daddy, with whom she still lives, even after she marries Henry. But then, the character's "cardiac neurosis," the very premise for her spells of bed-rest, is a psychosomatic illness triggered by wild tantrums based in insecurity, so that rules out the thesis of Leona being a stalwart pillar on her own. And the casting of Ed Begley fairly well pulverizes any possibility of being in love with Papa.
So, why does Leona marry Henry, and why is she so taken aback by his own duplicities, even the smaller, earlier, more reasonable ones? Why does she get sick with these quasi-paralyzing spellsapart from their seeming like an immature writer's stringy compromise-device for avoiding full-on disability, which would impose tighter restrictions on character and incident than Fletcher seems willing to entertain? And, as much as I hate to ask this: who is Leona, anyway, except a vessel of enraged, effective, but rather clockwork stages of fear? Her tearful collapse upon hearing from an unexpected party in the final sequence, plus the river of apologies that start pouring from her mouth, seem out of keeping with the tougher broad Stanwyck has implied at other moments, not least in her harshly expressed impatience with anything that the secondary characters attempt to tell her. Leona only allows the most direct answers to her fairly limited questions. Again, the writing is not Stanwyck's ally in this project. She's stuck with a lot of radio-potboiler language that's meant to hook the casual listener or orient the confused auditor: e.g., "But where is my husband, Mr. Stevenson?" or "Don't you know, I'm a very sick woman!" Allow me to grossly project: it's quite possible that, as a characterization, Leona Stevenson seemed so scattershot to Stanwyck, so obviously a necessary crux for this thrill-ride premise but not a coherent individual in her own right, that she simply gave up trying to make her anything but scared, then outraged, then scared and outraged, and finally scared.
Stanwyck's professionalism and inveterate hardiness serve the material just fine. She might err too far on the side of making Leona hard to like, but she is constitutionally unable to make the easy choice of inviting pity, which would undoubtedly lure so many other interpreters. Still, for an actor who applied such an inimitable stamp of personality to virtually every performance she gave for an extraordinary fifteen yearssuch distinctive blends of sauciness, complexity, and intelligence, across a huge range of genres and partsI admit to being chagrined by the sourness and rather flat severity that start stalking her work in the late 40s. In Sorry, Wrong Number, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, in Crime of Passion, even in Robert Wise's Executive Suite, where everybody except Stanwyck seems to be firing on all the right pistons from the word "Go," she comes across as having been barely convinced to take the part, as though she materialized on the set while still working out some fierce aggression against the role or the script, maybe even the medium. She holds back from connecting all the notes that are supplied to her (such as they are), and still more from adding her own chords, which is the crowning glory of so many of her 30s and early 40s turns. Douglas Sirk still found an eager, sympathetic, gorgeously disciplined actress in Stanwyck for 1953's All I Desire, and I'm sure there are other examples of late-career glories. She fully accedes to the high-style tackiness of Walk on the Wild Side without skimping on backstory or nuance. Still, it's notable how many roles after Double Indemnity recruited this incredibly versatile performer to play harsh, off-putting, sometimes malignant women, and she tends to make them even more soincluding when, as in Sorry, Wrong Number, she might have justified this approach a little better by digging more deeply for rationales, signaling more strongly that her movies were worth her effort.
It's impossible for me, I think, I hope, to dislike a Stanwyck performance, and in the case of Sorry, Wrong Number, there is no reason to. She's not at all bad in it. I just don't see her taking the kinds of initiatives that might have allowed her to be good. That creeping edge in the already-flinty voice of hers registers not just as panic but as a kind of frustrated fatigue. More than soliciting the other characters' assistance, Leona seems to want them to talk faster, say less, just get the fuck on with it. She has good reasons: the clock is ticking, and as far as she can tell, she has a date with the Reaper at 11:15. But I almost laughed during a few of the scenes when Leona barks so loudly into her interlocutor's receiver that there's no need for a cross-cut to Leona herself in order for us to hear her: "IS THERE ANYTHING WRONG? YOU'RE NOT KEEPING SOMETHING FROM ME, ARE YOU?" "ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE FUN OF ME?" "JUST IN CASE YOU DON'T KNOW, I'M A HELPLESS INVALID!" "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, I CAN'T TAKE ANY MESSAGES NOW!" ""DON'T YOU REALIZE I'M A TERRIBLY SICK WOMAN?" "LIARS, LIARS, LIARS, LIARS, LIARS, LIARS!"
I confess, my notes are incomplete: a few of these lines may have been spoken over direct shots of Stanwyck on the horn. In any case, she's awfully shouty. Granted, in her circumstances, you would be, too, but you might not want to be such a screeching harpy that no one wanted to help you, nor could anyone get a word in edgewise. And you might not signal, as Stanwyck often does, that she's not just yelling at Sally Lord or Waldo Evans or Dr. Alexanderrespectively, her romantic rival, her shadowy informant, and the writer of her prescriptionsbut that she's yelling at Paramount, at Lucille Fletcher, at an industry that's starting to take a narrower view of her, and of which she's starting to take an embittered, unimpressed view herself. None of this may have any connection to biographical reality. Maybe Stanwyck loved Sorry, Wrong Number, meditated deeply on the enigmas of Leona Stevenson, and could think of nothing better in 1948 than to continue playing a long train of perturbed, erratically sympathetic women. But for me, watching this performance, listening to that voice, I heard a different message coming over the line.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 7 to Go