By Axel Madsen
HarperCollins. 434 pp. $25
BARBARA STANWYCK's movie-acting was much like Bessie Smith's blues-singing -- unaffected and effortlessly powerful. The early Stanwyck performances epitomize the natural style that replaced handwringing and ranting not long after talkies arrived in the late 1920s. For a while she was so raw that she peaked on the first take. Not wanting to lose these freshets, director Frank Capra kept the camera on her rolling even if her partner in a scene blew his lines.
Her rival Bette Davis left a legacy of unhinged performances that verge on the grotesque, and her friend Joan Crawford's acting by-the-numbers drew this stinger from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "She can't change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then back." Out of almost 300 films credited to this triad of tough women, today most of Crawford's and Davis's stand bared as trumped-up star vehicles, short on plausibility and long on opportunities for shoulder-padded histrionics, while Stanwyck's best films -- "Double Indemnity," "Stella Dallas," "The Lady Eve," "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," "Baby Face," "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," "Remember the Night," "Ball of Fire," "No Man of Her Own" -- retain an unpackaged freshness.
Offscreen she was equally unpretentious, a cusser who balked at Hollywood protocol. Take her first encounter with Capra, in late 1929. When the interview misfired, she cut it off with an outburst: "Oh, hell, you don't want any part of me!" Capra advised Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn to "forget Stanwyck. She's not an actress. She's a porcupine." Her then-husband, Frank Fay, saved her career by insisting that Capra view one of her screen-tests. Wowed, he cast her immediately and went on to direct her a total of five times.
Quills lowered, she became a thoroughgoing professional. In this comprehensive but repetitious and plodding biography, Axel Madsen suggests that Stanwyck's later reluctance to throw temperament around may have cost her a few good roles, including "Mildred Pierce," for which Crawford won a best-actress Oscar. (Stanwyck, who never won an Oscar, foolishly turned down the Margo Channing role in "All About Eve," but it's hard to imagine anyone bettering Davis's delivery of those mordantly musical lines.)
Stanwyck got other, plum roles by being herself. Nothing came easier in Hollywood of the '30s and 40s than the glib line, "You're so rare, I'm going to write a film just for you." Preston Sturges promised as much in elation over Stanwyck's work in "Remember the Night," scripted by him and directed by Mitchell Leisen. A year later, having become one of Hollywood's first writer-directors, Sturges delivered "The Lady Eve," a vitriolic comedy in which she got to play both a cunning card-sharp and a feathery aristocrat. From the start Billy Wilder had her in mind for the murderess in "Double Indemnity," the shadowy masterpiece that triggered the film-noir craze.
"Barbara Stanwyck" was an apt moniker for her hard-shelled persona. She was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907 and orphaned at a young age. She grew up in a series of foster homes, left school at 13 and tagged along with her chorus-girl sister until she was old enough to do her own hoofing. She vaulted from the Ziegfeld Follies chorus line to the Broadway stage to Hollywood and was topping movie marquees by her mid-twenties.
She was one of the few stars to free-lance, signing multiple short-term contracts (at one point she was affiliated with Columbia, RKO, Paramount, and Warner Brothers) in lieu of the seven-year exclusives that studios liked to impose. She drank 14 cups of coffee a day, chain-smoked, slept three-and-a-half hours a night, memorized not just her lines but the whole script and commonly made four or five movies a year, with a range of roles from the sacrificing mother to the conniving killer and an intermediate specialty in the slanging showgirl. This whirligig of impersonation took its toll. Her two marriages ended in divorce, and she was a distantly wretched mother to the boy she and Fay adopted.
A former vaudeville comic, Fay was a besotted wife-beater whose career foundered while hers thrived. Madsen argues persuasively that their crossing trajectories were the inspiration for "A Star Is Born," first filmed in 1937 and based on a story by director William Wellman, into whose ears Stanwyck had poured her troubles when she and Fay were trying to reconcile. Her second husband was Robert Taylor, whom she bullyragged. Before meeting Stanwyck, who was four years his senior, he had hung out with Hollywood's gay crowd; afterwards, he tried to overcome his prettiness by passing himself off as a man's man -- hunter, pilot, soldier. In any guise he gave wooden performances, but he looked so sleek wielding a stethoscope or parking a chariot that nobody much cared. In "Camille" he found his ideal role -- the callow lover of Garbo's well-tempered courtesan.
Stanwyck seems to have loved Taylor less for himself than for what he represented: the stable home life she'd never had, the beauty she didn't quite exude. He dumped her in 1952, after a dozen years of marriage, and she never got over it. In her boozy last years, long after he was dead, she thought he appeared to her in her bedroom. Though she had deep affinities with her women friends, she guarded her private life so assiduously that the author has been unable to document his conclusion that she was bisexual.
Though Madsen can occasionally get off a pithy remark, the most incisive words in Stanwyck come from its subject, who always sounds gritty and smart. After watching her own performance as the cold-blooded Phyllis Dietrichson in "Double Indemnity," she said, "I'm afraid to go home with her. She's such a bitch." When an aging actress complained that her young lover was spending gobs of her money on himself, Stanwyck asked, "Is the screwing you're getting worth the screwing you're getting?"
After her death in 1990, she was cremated in accordance with her wishes. She deserves an epitaph, though. Let me propose a line from one of her movies. In "Golden Boy" mobster Joseph Calleia asks fight-promoter Adolphe Menjou if the Stanwyck character is his "new girl." Before Menjou can answer, she snarls in her Brooklyn accent, "I'm my mutha's girl."
Dennis Drabelle, a Washington writer and editor, frequently reviews books about the movies.