WEIRDLAND: Barbara Stanwyck's emotional transformations, Break-Up with Robert Taylor

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck's emotional transformations, Break-Up with Robert Taylor

"Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens) was the greatest emotional actress the screen has yet known." —Frank Capra

Barbara Stanwyck and Mae Clarke, 1927, New York

During the making of Big Time, the studio promised Mae Clarke that great things were going to happen to her. Mae and Barbara met for lunch. Mae talked about 'Big Time'. John Ford was in it as himself, a Hollywood director. During the lunch, Mae felt an inexplicable tension from Barbara, that she couldn’t reach her. Mae sat there “with the dearest friend I’ve ever had,” she said. “There was a constraint between us as though we were strangers.” In New York, Mae and Barbara had been inseparable; they’d shared the same bed, eaten together, worked together. Mae couldn’t understand what was wrong. She felt that if she could “just bridge those silences everything would be all right.” There was nothing else to talk about, so Mae talked about the plans the studio had for her. “The picture didn’t mean half as much to me as getting close to Barbara again. But she didn’t understand. “Barbara thought I was getting 'high-hat'. And all I could think of was that Barbara didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I’m a link that binds her to the past. In New York we were harum scarum kids, madcaps, who did crazy things.” -"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940" (2013) by Victoria Wilson

“Stanwyck was slim, and remained so over her career. Regardless of the obligations and pressures regarding size and shape for women in Hollywood, or her own needs and desires as an actress and a person, or the occasions within the films that show off her body, Stanwyck rarely advertises a superficial fantasy of feminine appearance. She is too busy exploring the subtlety of interactions.” ―Andrew Klevan, author of Barbara Stanwyck (Film Stars), 2013

"Lots of actresses are getting by with good looks and practically nothing else. And there are other actresses who have brains and no beauty," said director William Wellman. "But when you get beauty and brains together, there's no stopping her – and the best example of that is Barbara."

Barbara later described her transformation: “Only through Willard Mack’s kindness in coaching me, showing me all the tricks, how to sell myself by entrances and exits, did I get by. It was Willard Mack who completely disarranged my mental make-up. The process—like all processes of birth and death, I guess—was pretty damn painful. Especially for him. I got temperamental. The truth is, I was scared. I’d storm and yell that I couldn’t act—couldn’t, and what’s more, wouldn’t. I think I can honestly say that this was my first and last flare-up of temperament, because Mr. Mack—who had flattered and encouraged me— shrewdly reversed his tactics.

One day, right before the entire company, he screamed back at me that I was right, I was dead right. I was a chorus girl, would always be a chorus girl, would live and die a chorus girl, so to hell with me. It worked. I yelled back that I could act, would act, was not a chorus girl—was Bernhardt, Fiske and all the Booths and Barrymores rolled into one.”

“Underneath her sullen shyness,” Frank Capra later wrote, “smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt. Naïve, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, clothes or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces … She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped.” 'Ladies of Leisure' was a great hit, a major step up for Columbia, and it made an instant star of Barbara Stanwyck. Critics raved about this lovely young actress, effusively praising the naturalness and honesty of her acting, her unique voice and her strong presence. Photoplay rhapsodized about “the astonishing performance of a little tap-dancing beauty who has in her the spirit of a great artist… Go and be amazed by this Barbara girl.”

David Manners and Barbara Stanwyck in "The Miracle Woman" (1931), based on the play "Bless You, Sister" by John Meehan and Robert Riskin, directed by Frank Capra

She’d become Capra’s favorite actress and he directed her in three more Columbia dramas. 'The Miracle Woman' (1931) was an initially daring but failed attempt at telling the story of a fraudulent preacher, based on the notorious Aimee Semple McPherson. Barbara delivered a strong performance but the cop-out script sank it. 'Forbidden' (’32) was nothing more than mawkish soap opera worthy of neither of them. 'The Bitter Tea of General Yen' (’32) was a truly strange tale with Barbara as the captive and lover of a Chinese warlord, but casting Swedish Nils Asther as General Yen was pure racial cowardice. None approached 'Ladies of Leisure' in quality or box office success. Barbara always considered William Wellman, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder her favorite directors.

Her final 1939 film was Clifford Odets’ 'Golden Boy'. It had been a high-profile hit on Broadway and the movie version was severely marred by a sappy happy ending that was widely criticized, but Barbara was well received for her unflinching portrait of a hard-edged “dame from Newark” who falls for the young hero. The boy, an extremely demanding role, was played by a very nervous newcomer, William Holden.

It didn’t start out too well. When she got word that he was going to be fired, she threatened to walk off the picture if they did any such thing, and spent every available moment coaching and working with him so he could deliver the performance she knew he was capable of. With her help, 'Golden Boy' made William Holden a star, and every year for the rest of his life he sent her flowers on the anniversary of the film’s starting date.

William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck during the 50th Annual Academy Awards at Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles.

Many years later, when Holden and Stanwyck were introduced together as presenters at the 1978 Academy Awards, he unexpectedly ditched their prepared script, saying instead: “Before Barbara and I present this next award, I’d like to say something. Thirty-nine years ago this month we were working in a film together called 'Golden Boy', and it wasn’t going well because I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being and her interest and understanding and her professional integrity and her encouragement and, above all, her generosity, I’m here tonight.” Surprised and overcome, her eyes filled with tears as she embraced him. In the midst of shooting 'Golden Boy', on May 14, 1939, she and Robert Taylor were quietly married.

'Ball of Fire' (1941) solidified her new glamour girl image, her naturally thin upper lip now enlarged and reshaped with artfully flared lipstick. (She retained this lush-lipped look for the next 15 years.) She was Sugarpuss O’Shea, a leggy, bespangled showgirl tootsie on the lam from the cops, hiding out in a houseful of stodgy professors and falling for the youngest of them (Gary Cooper). Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the delightful script, Howard Hawks directed, and Barbara’s hyper-energetic performance was a critical and popular triumph, earning her another Oscar nomination.

Bad wig or not, 'Double Indemnity' was a smash, and audiences loved seeing Barbara in that sort of role. She scored her third Oscar nomination, but Gaslight’s weepily sympathetic Ingrid Bergman took home the prize.

Paramount’s 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' (1946) was a gleeful return to the shady world of noir, her Martha looking gorgeous—no wig this time—as she killed and schemed her way to her own eventual destruction. She now had no reservations about going the limit and her performance was neurotically succulent and corrupt. With her dancer’s grace, economy of movement and venomous eyes, she was certainly by now the most dangerous woman in movies and the poor saps who got tangled in her web paid a fearsome prize. No, it isn’t so pretty what a dame without pity can do. If 'Double Indemnity' started that engine, Martha Ivers put it into overdrive.

In 1951 Barbara divorced Robert Taylor. His infidelities had become common knowledge and her most passionate fidelity had long been to her profession. In 1954 he married German-born actress Ursula Thiess and the following year she gave birth to a son, his first child. Barbara never remarried.

The American Film Institute honored her on April 9, 1987, with AFI’s Salute to Barbara Stanwyck, an all-star tribute to her body of work on film. She had recently thrown her back out and was hospitalized and in considerable pain, but worked out with barbells to be able to be there. A host of her co-stars and admirers lavished their praise, but Billy Wilder topped them all:

“I learned many years ago never to say, ‘This is the best actor or actress I’ve ever worked with,’ because the next time you want a star, he or she is gonna say ‘Wait a minute, you said Stanwyck was the greatest, now what does that make me?’ Always say she’s one of the two greatest stars you’ve worked with and whenever you approach a star, say, ‘You were the one I meant.’ Except, of course, for tonight. I hope nobody’s watching me. She was the best!” When, at the conclusion, Barbara approached the podium to accept accept her award, her response to all the evening’s hosannas was “Honest to God, I can’t walk on water.” In thanking all those who helped her on her journey, she singled out Wilder, “who taught me to kill.” After the evening’s festivities she returned to the hospital.

Rex Reed had once asked her to analyze her stardom or some such folderol, but she didn’t take the bait: “What the hell. Whatever I had, it worked, didn’t it?” -"Barbara Stanwyck: The Furies" (2004) by Ray Hagen from "Killer tomatoes: fifteen tough film dames" by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner.

"Trusty, dusky, vivid, true, With eyes of gold and brambledew, Steel-true and blade-straight, The great artificer made my mate." —Robert Taylor on Barbara Stanwyck, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson

Ivy Pearson-Mooring would often come over to the Taylor home and do the ironing. Ivy recalls Stanwyck as, “very nice to me, but it was clear that there were problems in their marriage.” Ivy Pearson-Mooring's husband Len Pearson started a business as a valet to the stars. In this capacity he would organize their wardrobe, shine their shoes and press their suits. He soon had a clientele that included Keenan Wynn, Mervyn LeRoy, Dick Powell—and Robert Taylor. The word of mouth of this service recruited other clients and soon Ivy was helping with the business and in this capacity got to know Bob and Barbara Stanwyck. The relationship that Ivy forged with Bob would last for the rest of his life. Eventually, Ivy would lose Len to a brain tumor and Bob would bring her on as his private secretary, “even though he typed better than I did!” And she would also become godmother to Bob’s first child, his son Terry. Ivy offers an insight into the deteriorating Taylor-Stanwyck marriage.

She says that Barbara became very jealous of Bob, especially of his weekends away with the guys flying and hunting. She was jealous of friends Bob met and kept in touch with in the Navy, Ralph Crouse (who he would arrange a job for at MGM as his pilot) and Tom Purvis. It got so bad that when either one would call the house, Barbara, if she answered first, would tell Bob, “Your wife is on the phone.”

One day Ivy was discussing Len’s deteriorating condition with Stanwyck. “Len is very confused these days,” she told her. “So am I,” Barbara replied. “I can’t understand Bob’s behaviour. He's gone off the rails. Barbara began to drink quite a bit during this period of time. “It was a very tense relationship,” Ivy recalls. “Barbara would drink a great deal of champagne and would become a different person.” It was at times like this that Barbara would even lash out at Ivy. “She would insinuate that something was going on between me and Bob. Of course it wasn’t. She was just looking for any excuse she could because Bob had lost any desire he may have had at one time for her.” Barbara began to assault Bob’s masculinity. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism to help deal with the fact that Bob apparently didn’t find her attractive sexually any longer. Arlene Dahl was actually happy when she heard that Bob and Barbara had broken up. “I was hoping they would. He was too good of a man to waste on a woman like her.” -"Robert Taylor: A Biography" (2010) by Charles Tranberg

Although the movie would be inconceivable without Fonda, "The Lady Eve” is all Stanwyck's; the love, the hurt and the anger of her character provide the motivation for nearly every scene, and what is surprising is how much genuine feeling she finds in the comedy. Watch her eyes as she regards Fonda, in all of their quiet scenes together, and you will see a woman who is amused by a man's boyish shyness and yet aroused by his physical presence. At first she loves the game of seduction, and you can sense her enjoyment of her own powers. Then she is somehow caught up in her own seduction. There has rarely been a woman in a movie who more convincingly desired a man. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay specifically for Stanwyck. Source:

Barbara Stanwyck on performing her favorite role, Stella Dallas in "Stella Dallas" (1937): "The task was to convince audiences that Stella's instincts were fine and noble even though, on the surface she was loud, flamboyant, and a bit vulgar."

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