Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Actress Files: Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck, Sorry, Wrong Number
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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 spells—apart 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 years—such distinctive blends of sauciness, complexity, and intelligence, across a huge range of genres and parts—I 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 so—including 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. Alexander—respectively, her romantic rival, her shadowy informant, and the writer of her prescriptions—but 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

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18 Comments:

Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I pretty much completely agree with this assessment. A master turning in a slightly half-assed, slightly disinterested but thoroughly efficient performance. Although it isn't at all weak, it's by far the weakest I've seen of her performances.

But. There is plenty of rewarding Stanwyck post-Phyllis Dietrichson: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Forty Guns, Clash by Night, The Furies, There's Always Tomorrow, No Man of Her Own. Her sharp instincts in these often (but not always) slightly tacky, slightly prosaic films stand out all the more.

Meantime if I were to give out nominations, I think she'd earn well over 20. Every year I manage to catch a couple of her more obscure vehicles (e.g. 1930's Ladies of Leisure just last week) and end up speechless at the blunt intelligence, at how naturally she manages to deliver some insufferably purple dialogue, and at how frequently "she is constitutionally unable to make the easy choice of inviting pity that would undoubtedly lure so many other interpreters". Any time I have to endure something like a Sally Field or a Meryl Streep (hehe) performance, I watch Stanwyck to cleanse myself.

2:44 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

LOVED this entry. It's years since I've seen the film, but it must have been one of the very first Stanwyck perfs I caught, and your analysis explains why I didn't become a big fan until rather later. I agree there's almost no one better in the 30s and early 40s. And I'll back Goran up on Forty Guns, which I saw lately -- didn't like the film much, but she's certainly butch and three-star tasty in it. I'm going to get right on to Martha Ivers, which I have in a BS box set but haven't yet seen...

3:28 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Although I like this performance somewhat more than you do, you're dead right that Stanwyck doesn't seem to be doing much to make the character in any way coherent. Although I don't like either of them nearly as much as Stanwyck, I can imagine Bete Davis or Joan Crawford playing this part and marrying the steely, brazen, and confident 'early Leona' with the later wilting, raging neurotic much more successfully (I have a hard time buying Stanwyck as a neurotic of any stripe). I suspect it would make the character and the film even more unbearable, however.

And having spent years wondering why people shout at the screen when characters in thrillers and horror movies behave stupidly, as though people in life can't be just as suicidally wrong-headed, the moment when Leona, knowing that a man is coming to her house to kill her, rings for a nurse instead of the police is the moment I decided the film could go f*** itself.

3:53 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

I was totally about to post again about how I can imagine Crawford in this! Laika has sixth sense. Was gonna say, I guess the two things you have to ask with this kind of performance are (a) how good a use of Stanwyck is it? (you've answered that thoroughly) and (b) how much better is the film with her in it than it would be with a more predictable or jobbing genre actress? Crawford instantly comes to mind as a possible if campy replacement, though I think my dream casting might actually be Gloria Swanson. Can you imagine? "See, I can do a talkie where I don't even MOVE!". And just think what she'd do with those "LIAR!"s. Fantasy actressing is so much fun.

5:26 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger Cal said...

I was sorely disappointed by this after the gimmicky, fun-sounding plotline and the obvious lure of Babs. She definitely helped build the suspense but the film's way too silly and plotted.

I have to second Goran on The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which is a triumph for more than Barbara. Outstanding film.

5:43 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

What Cal said is so true. "Sorry Wrong Number" is definitely "way too silly and plotted". A film and performance that are famous for being famous - but don't stand up to much scrutiny. And - yes - like almost everyone else, I love Barbara Stanwyck. Excellent earlier (and relatively unheralded)performances include "Internes Can't Take Money" and "Breakfast for Two", both from 1937 - and both much more satisfying and disciplined than her nominated (and all-over-the-map) work that year in "Stella Dallas". She's also terrific in the lovely "Remember the Night" from 1940. 50's Stanwyck is the one I grew up with - and I still love what she did in "Clash By Night" and "Titanic". And I'd rank 1957 as a banner year for her. Both "Forty Guns" and "Crime of Passion" are tough, excellent vehicles that play to her strong points.

6:30 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Hee, I had a feeling you'd be less than fond of this. I will say I am unversed in most things Stanwyck but I'm very fond of this performance, though I'm not too certain why. I suppose precisely because I haven't seen that much of her work I don't feel she's doing less than she can.

The movie is convoluted though, I like her performance in it despite the movie.

7:46 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Goran: I should have been even clearer that I keep picking the wrong post-Indemnity stuff and that I'm worried by what I see there, but I realize she did a lot of storied work after that point. Martha Ivers, There's Always Tomorrow, Furies, and Clash are especially high on my list.

@Tim: I was worried by the low grade for Forty Guns on your site that she might not have been sterling in it. Lord knows, Fuller has been hard for me to embrace as fully as I'd expected to, after starting with Pickup on South Street. I can easily see that she'd be better than the film.

@Laika: Ha! Love that kiss-off to the Idiot Plot. I'm sort of glad it wasn't Crawford or Davis, who would have been great but slightly in their comfort zone. I suppose it's too boring to wish that Agnes Moorehead had been allowed to reprise the part and be center-stage for once in one of her movies. Though it's funny that I'm concerned about how likable Stanwyck allowed this character to be, and now I'm cheering, "Hire Agnes Moorehead!"

@Tim: Swanson is a genius suggestion. The movie's so jerry-rigged, it seemingly exists to get us excited about whoever's in the part, so why not give us a shot of someone we've really missed? I admit my fantasy actressing kept reminding me of people I'm glad they didn't cast (Jennifer Jones, Greer Garson, Susan Hayward, Roz Russell, Rita Hayworth), all of which made me appreciate Stanwyck a bit more.

@Cal: More love for Martha Ivers! It's hard to see how a film with that title, starring Stanywck, could go wrong.

@CKen: Well, I have to disagree about Crime of Passion, which just seemed garish and sub-Aldrich to me. And I love what she does in Stella Dallas, partly because, by going all over the map, she allows Stella a much more expansive journey if largely unarticulated of her own, against the grain of a script that wants everything in her life to be about her daughter. But I'm excited about all of those other recommendations you've filed.

@A:EE: This would be a great Stanwyck perf to see early, since again, she is fine in it, and it only gets better from here!

11:05 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Is it appropriate then that Lancaster is about to deliver a backhand swing to Barbara on the cover art?

My favorite Stanwyck is still "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" not just for Barbara but mostly for Judith Anderson's DELICIOUS "Source of All Evil" interpretation of a cruel and miserly aunt. Being related to that character was all the explanation you needed to accept how Martha Ivers turned out the way she did. Supremely satisfying cinema.

12:26 PM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Good god, I've clearly got a lot to learn about fantasy actressing. Davis and Crawford? Pah! How about Swanson or Moorhead? Genius suggestions both, tim r and nick; on the other hand the idea of Rosalind Russell (particularly post-WW2 Rusell) given access to this level of scenery-chewing grandiosity and hysteria is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat (and horrifyingly plausible - can't you just hear her delivery of the lines? Hoarse, plummy cries of "Liar! Liar!" Gyeeeh). I'm going to have to counter the effect with the least probable casting I can imagine: Leona Stevenson as essayed by Tallullah Bankhead. 'Dahling, I just heard the most dreadful murder plot over the telephone; be a sweetheart and send me some aspirin over with that gin, would you?'

1:05 PM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Might've been a good exercise for Joan Bennett, too, though I still need a lot of convincing about her.

1:18 PM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Nick, re your comment on Joan Bennett and how you have to be convinced about her. I'm not sure what you have and haven't seen of hers. I know I wouldn't want to wish SORRY WRONG NUMBER on her.But you did get me thinking about my take on Bennett's career. In her official debut in 1929's BULLDOG DRUMMOND, she's preposterously bad. So amateurish and awkward, she makes Mary Pickford's posturing in COQUETTE look (almost) accomplished. Audiences seeing Bennett for the first time here (failing miserably to keep up her end of the deal opposite Ronald Colman - smashingly good in his own talkie debut) could be forgiven for thinking she was hopeless and -if there was any justice - would never work again in pictures. So it was quite amazing that by the mid-thirties she'd not only stuck around, but had actually achieved a certain modest level of competence.
The physical makeover a la Hedy Lamarr in the late 30's seemed to enlarge her fan base. Much of her artistic reputation seems to be spring from the noirish Fritz Lang films she made in the 40's. And though I'm not as high on them as some are, it's clear that - confidence-wise and abilty-wise Bennett had come a long way since BULLDOG DRUMMOND. The picture that finally made me a believer was 1947's THE MACOMBER AFFAIR. I don't think it was a hit in its day - and it's not that easy to find now. But Bennett's pretty terrific in it - smart, biting, a little deadly. All in all,a nicely conceived portrait, sexy, a little scary, but believable and recognizably human in her disillusionement. If you haven't seen MACOMBER yet, watch out for it. This performance may just get you on board the Bennett train. Gregory Peck's the leading man in MACOMBER, but the outstanding male performance comes from Robert Preston. Not someone I normally respond to positively - but here, as a wealthy, complicated weakling who takes his neuroses on an African safari, he's memorably good. (Bennett plays his wife). Another rewarding Joan Bennett vehicle is Max Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT from '49 which teams her intriguingly with James Mason. When the 50's arrived, Bennett's specialty became her warm mother-of-the-bride professionalism, consistently displaying a good natured expertise that seemed to have no connection at all to BULLDOG DRUMMOND's incompetent ninny of a heroine. I remember enjoying a 1977 screen sighting of Bennett in Dario Argento's hyper-colored horror film SUSPIRIA. It was fun watching her and Alida Valli having fun with their parts (one all hostessy, the other one steely and butch). And part of the pleasure came from realizing just how much credit Bennett (and Valli) had built up with me over the years. It was nice to see them again.

7:29 PM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i haven't yet seen this one but i don't like her work in STELLA DALLAS (at all) so i've been nervous that maybe I just don't "get" Stanwyck in quite the expansive way that I'm 'supposed to' but obviously I need to see more.

Y Kant -- well over 20? Really? I can't think of one actor from any era that deserves so many. There's always so much to choose from each year so it's hard to be "top five" every time out.

10:47 PM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@CKen: I like Bennett in The Reckless Moment but can't quite say that I love her. That movie, for me, is about Mason and Ophüls. I feel basically good about her in The Woman in the Window, but people seem to like her even more in Scarlet Street and I just could - not - take - her in that. Otherwise, I've only seen her in Little Women, Disraeli, and Private Worlds; of those, she made the biggest impression on me in the latter, though that's still not saying a ton. I've been curious for insider recommendations on her, so as usual, your pointers are much appreciated.

@Nathaniel: That Stella Dallas performance seems like the divisive one, even among the devoted. I love it, but I can see why people wouldn't. The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, though, in that order, I can't imagine you saying No to.

12:47 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Stella Dallas is probably her most uneven performance, but the brilliant, inventive bits outnumber the ones where she lets the script drag her down (and what a drag the script is..).

And yes, Nathaniel, really. Much as I love a lot of 'stylised' actressing from the 30s and 40s, Stanwyck's ahead-of-her-time unshowiness and tough edge makes her stand out in every year's batch of prospective Best Actress candidates.

I'd definitely like her highlighted for Ladies at Leisure, Baby Face, Forbidden, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, (in my world triple nominations are legal so I'd also nominate her for) Ball of Fire, (as well as the otherwise pretty unbearable) Meet John Doe, Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Furies, Clash by Night, There's Always Tomorrow, Forty Guns - oops that's only 14 I can think of, so maybe I exaggerated. But then I'm only about a fifth into her filmography. By the time I get to three-quarters, it may very well be 20.

1:37 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I haven't seen all of those, but if we're allowing double-counts, I'd add a nod for The Bitter Tea of General Yen. She at least comes close to my personal ballots for the very crowded year in which The Miracle Woman and Night Nurse were both eligible, though I don't think she quite qualifies, based on stiff competition.

The triple-nomination for 1941 is something I, too, would be behind. How she lost that year will always be beyond me. I mean, by Academy logic I get it, but it's just so profoundly unjust.

1:46 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Joan Bennett. Nick, I was only thinking of her today in Little Women. I find her so affecting as Amy at times, has she done anything of note that you’d recommend. I rarely hear her name mentioned. I guess Hollywood was only ready for two Joans that era.

PS. Laika wins for best comment. Though I have a soft spot for Russell (on occasion) this amount of scenery chewing would have been a disaster…but the suggestion of Nick’s that made me shudder most was Greer Garson. No. Just, no.

2:17 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i should have mentioned that. I think she's the bees knees and everything else in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire... but Stella Dallas had me worried that I only truly love her in one type of film.

I shall see more. But yes, I'm firmly in the "she should have won the oscar for 1941" camp.

9:11 AM, June 03, 2010  

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