That Old Feeling: Ruby in the Rough

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Barbara Stanwyck in the 1937 film, "Stella Dallas"

Forget the Actors Studio. Today's young performers, and not just the women, should go to Barbara Stanwyck School. By watching the work of a movie star who never had an acting lesson, they'd learn how to carry themselves and a film — how to project sincerity, arrogance, ferocity and wit. They'd learn how to speak quickly in adult tones that give power and nuance to every phrase; Stanwyck could really move the merchandise. And if they look at her early pictures, made just as the movies were beginning to talk (and talk tough), they'll discover something even more remarkable: that she had it all from the start.

Mention Stanwyck — who died in 1990, 26 years after completing her last feature film — to those in their 20s and 30s, and they'll squeeze out a memory of the silver-haired matriarch of "The Big Valley," a TV western in the "Bonanza" mode that ran from 1965 to 1969. A few could cite "Double Indemnity," in which she set the mold for the freon-cool killer femmes of film noir. Indeed, if you had raised her name to the Childe Corliss back in the '50s, I'd have fingered her as the stern middle-aged queen of many westerns (my least favorite genre back then). She also bore a family resemblance to half of my female Irish relatives. Stanwyck didn't have the whiff of legend about her, just the smell of the lamp.

The lovely thing about a film actor's work is that it's always there to be rediscovered; the nice thing about ignorance is that it can eventually be twisted into enlightenment. Catching up with Stanwyck's work in the late '60s, and further in 1988 when TNT opened the Turner treasure chest of early Warners talkies, I realized she meant, and gave, so much more to movies. She did her first big Hollywood movie, Frank Capra's "Ladies of Leisure," when she was 22; yet she already acted like a grownup, and showed how to merge energy and maturity. She illuminated some of the best films of the sharpest writer-directors: Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve," Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire," Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." She lent her heft and sparkle to films by lesser directors. In her youth (the '30s) and her prime (the '40s), she helped define the modern woman: assured, in-charge, alluring and all-business.

The Stanwyck woman — and though nine of her films have the word "lady" or "ladies" in the title, she was rarely a lady, always a woman — was a tough cookie, and a smart one. She often treated her men with beguiling degrees of indulgence, pity and contempt. In "Ten Cents a Dance" she snorts, "You're not a man. You're not even a good sample." In any skirmish with the opposite sex, she has the advantage of ruthlessness. Her opponents, corseted by propriety, think they're in for a set of badminton; she's ready for a street brawl.

Sex appeal was a weapon for the Stanwyck character; flirtation was a gambit; conquest was power. It's true that this small, skinny woman with the prominent beak was not conventionally pretty; there are times in her very best films when she looks not just haggard but haggish. But it doesn't matter, because she had the musk of a creature on the prowl and the skill to convince audiences of her beauty. The tension and the comedy of her films derived from the ways men reacted to her: either they thought they could beat her at her game, or they took the fastest way out of the competition and surrendered to the lure of her danger. She was the volcano that men had to parachute into, just to be there when she erupted.

Her early life, as related in Homer Dickens' "The Films of Barbara Stanwyck," could have been grist for a Warner Bros. programmer from the dirty '30s. Ruby Stevens was born, in 1907, in Brooklyn — because that's where her father Byron fled after deserting his young wife Catherine and three kids. Ruby was their first child after Catherine tracked him down. When Ruby was three, Catherine died from injuries after a drunk pushed her from a trolley car. Again Byron walked out on the family; he fled to the Panama Canal Zone and was gone for good. Ruby and her younger brother Malcolm were farmed out to neighbors who treated them with little affection and heavy mitts. Finally the eldest Stevens sister, Maude, took in Malcolm but not Ruby; "a boy is less trouble to look after," she said. With the terse grit of a Stanwyck heroine, the actress later wrote: "I don't feel sorry for the kid I used to be. I remember she didn't feel sorry for herself."

Another sister, Millie, was a showgirl of sorts; and from eight to 11, Ruby spent summers backstage on the road. She was a working girl from 13: wrapping packages at Abraham & Straus, talking herself into jobs at New York Telephone and Cond Nast. At 15 she was hired as a dancer in a show at the Strand Roof nightclub for a princessly $40 a week. Her first dance director, Earl Lindsay, noticed the girl in the back row was dogging it and gave her some stern advice: "As long as you're in my chorus you'll kick high or get off the stage." These words turned Ruby's life around. From then on, she was the hardest working gal in showbiz.

She danced in a few Broadway shows, shouldering her way from the back of the chorus to featured spots. When she was cast in her first acting gig, "The Noose," producer David Belasco told Ruby that her real name "sounds like a burlesque queen"; he delved into a Playbill and came up with a more elegant stage name. Arthur Hopwood saw in the young actress "a sort of rough poignancy" and gave her the lead in his play "Burlesk," which ran for more than a year. Now the press was noticing the kid from Brooklyn. Opined a brash new newsmagazine: "Last week loud applause came to a young actress who found herself bowing to bravos as featured player of the season's first hit, while her ears still rang with the jazz jingles she crooned only two years ago in the smoky staleness of a night club. Barbara Stanwyck came then suddenly to the apogee of Broadway nights." Stanwyck was 20; TIME was four.

She attracted more personal attention as well. Her pal Oscar Levant introduced Stanwyck to Frank Fay, a Broadway star 10 years her senior, and in 1928 they were married. It was the time of the first talkie fever, and Hollywood needed actors who could speak lines, not just mimes who looked gorgeous. So the newlyweds tried the movies.

In her 1932 film "The Purchase Price" Stanwyck gives a speech, written by Warners' ace scribe Robert Lord, that could serve as her adieu to New York and hello to Hollywood: "I've been up and down Broadway since I was 15 years old. I'm fed up with hoofing in shows. I'm sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers and smart guys. I've heard all the questions and I know all the answers... The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high- powered headache. I've got a chance to breathe something else. And, boy, I'm grabbin' it."

Actually, stardom grabbed her; she found it immediately, and held on. She was top-billed in her first 20 Hollywood films; of the 82 features in which she had a prominent role, hers was the first name in 60. She was the rare actor, in the feudal studio era of the early '30s, to have contracts with two companies, Warner Bros. and Columbia. She stayed near the top of the movie biz for three decades, while other star actresses retired or played horror-film harpies. Then she graced the small screen for 20 more years, winning an Emmy at 77 for her role in the miniseries "The Thorn Birds."

As for Fay, he never clicked in pictures. As she flourished, he perished, and her success made his failure all the raspier. Their adoption of a boy, Dion Anthony Fay, didn't salve their aching marriage, and in 1935 they were divorced. A few years later she married swoonworthy actor Robert Taylor; they divorced in 1953. In time, the abandoned child abandoned her son. In 1957 Tony was arrested for trying to sell lewd pictures while waiting to cash his unemployment check. When quizzed by the press about his famous mother, he replied, "We don't speak." She saw him only a few times after his childhood. He resembled her in just one respect: both were, effectively, orphans.

Professionally, though, she was a doll; she once said, "I'll keep on working till they shoot me." Maybe she was nowhere so comfortable, so at ease with herself, as on a movie set, playing a character or playing Barbara Stanwyck, everyone's best pal. She never forgot Earl Lindsay's lesson: do your job and do it well. She %0D was the first on the set and the last to leave; she knew her lines and everyone else's; in westerns she performed most of her own action scenes, including one that her stuntwoman couldn't do (getting dragged by a horse in "Forty Guns," made when she was 49). She also earned the easy admiration of fellow actors and the grizzled key grips. They all adored her — called her "a swell guy."

The anti-heroine Stanwyck often played was, as they used to say, "too much woman for one man" — and too much man, too. Not surprisingly, these roles fanned gossip that Stanwyck was a lesbian; the synoptic gossip site The A List describes her marriage to Taylor as a beard "merkin arrangement." Stanwyck denied the rumor, with increasing exasperation, in an interview, just before her death, with addictive out-er Boze Hadleigh; as published in Hadleigh's book "Hollywood Lesbians," the questioning very nearly amounts to senior abuse.

One thing we know: Stanwyck starred in a movie called "The Gay Sisters." Other than that, it's all lavender innuendo. What's undeniable is a screen personality so potent, assured, daring that its essence can be taken as erotic. That's a natural enough assumption: romance was the currency of most Hollywood movies in Stanwyck's day, and her approach — her attack — was calculated and feral, a wolf stalking and then devouring the victim with the best bloodlines. Not just Hollywood but America saw that aggressiveness as masculine. Now it is seen as lesbian. But that doesn't mean the actress was. (A famous book editor toiled for years on a biography whose mission was to prove %0AStanwyck gay; finally the editor decided Stanwyck wasn't, and has considered dropping the project.)

A website essay touting Stanwyck as a "warrior woman," and predecessor to the Princess Xena, quotes a comment I made about Stanwyck in 1981: that "by the end of the '30s the studios had pretty much stopped trying to pair her with macho men, and instead played her aggressive, experienced 'maleness' against some of the era's most engaging wimps" (e.g., Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve," Gary Cooper in "Meet John Doe").

Twenty years later, I think her screen force was only incidentally sexual. I think it derived more from impulses of class than from gender. Like James Cagney, her male equivalent at Warners, she was the standard bearer for the underclass, with all its hard-won wisdom, its skepticism, its knowing which rules to play by and which to disregard. Like Cagney (and very few other mainstream stars), Stanwyck prefigured the '50s triumph of the pop underclass — when Brando, rock 'n roll, teen horror movies and Mad comics announced, in a cacophonous chorus, that arrogant, high- octane, raunchy art had become the dominant strain of American culture. It remains so today. Stanwyck was among the best movie exemplars of underclass energy. Indeed, many of her films dramatized how the underclass would fight the middle class, and win.

You could hear that war of the classes in Stanwyck's voice, a handsome instrument hewn from a scrawny, slum-neighborhood tree. That voice had Brooklyn in it, and Broadway; her a's were flat, her r's soft. And when she was cast against type — in the role of the ethereal self-sacrificer — her voice lent worldly substance to the narrative implausibilities. It helped her shame an audience of ornery parishioners in "The Miracle Woman" and persuade a canny onlooker to say admiringly, "You've got hot steel in your blood." It let her speak for all New York in "Golden Boy" (in which Stanwyck godmothered the young William Holden to stardom and earned his lifelong devotion). It served the twin poles of passion and irony in "Stella Dallas" — when the war of the classes was the film's subject, not just its subtext.

By 1937, when she starred in that Olive Higgins Prouty weepie, Stanwyck had already cemented her image as the screen's toughest, tastiest cookie. How could she convince moviegoers that their Lady of Leisure would renounce a lifetime of hot nights for the role of back-street mother to Anne Shirley? Stanwyck would do it playing Stella hard and broad, by daring the audience to dismiss her. The former dancer walks across the room, cranking her arms as if in a fast-walk marathon. The elegant clotheshorse wears the world's ugliest dress — it looks like a giant banana split, with oversized marshmallows for triceps. She talks way too loud, as if trying to drown out the voices in her head telling her she's not good enough.

Her work in "Stella Dallas" is a triumph of defiant technique. For once, the actress seems outside her character, cuing the audience to pity Stella here, despise her there. No matter: at the end, radiant in repose and without evident makeup, Stanwyck wins tears and applause from every skeptic in the house. She could take the cruel twist of fate as well as dish it out; she could make the noble platitude of Triumph Through Renunciation seem a little less cloying.

Maybe Stanwyck's craft was an extension of her personality, forged in deprivation, polished with sandpaper, worn with unique style. Which would mean it can't be taught to today's young generation of actors. But it can be savored by any of us spry enough to slip a cassette into a VCR. Watch her work today, with the thrill of admiration at what a performer was able to achieve in sound films when the form was in its infancy, then early maturity. You'll see, over and over, a movie miracle: a natural actor whose body is a medium to distill a character's motives and emotions. Stanwyck thinks; Stanwyck feels. Ruby lives.