My current Top 5

My current Top 5

11/12/2010

Best Actress 1937: Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas"

It’s not exactly clear which events or persons were the inspiration for the movie A Star is Born, but according to various sources Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage to actor Frank Fay, who married the unknown Stanwyck and saw his career decline while she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, might have been one of them. While this is pure speculation it’s still interesting to see Barbara Stanwyck joining the top actors in Hollywood with her first Oscar nomination the same year that Janet Gaynor received a nod for her rising actress in A Star is Born.

Barbara Stanwyck’s first nomination came for the kind of role the Academy loves to honor – the self-sacrificing mother who is willing to do everything to help her child get a better life. Because of this, she may resemble Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce – both women who focused their whole existence on the welfare of their child, even though they did it in different ways. Madelon Claudet lived at the lowest end of society and had to sell her body to earn money to put her son through medical school who, on top of that, also believed that his mother was dead because she wanted to save him from the embarrassment of being associated with a woman like her. Mildred Pierce wasn’t quite so noble and her support for her spoiled daughter brought her in the other direction – to the financial top. Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas is somewhere in the middle but she also shows a very important difference to these prototypes of suffering mother – a difference that ultimately harms her performance.

Stella Dallas doesn’t have a scandalous past that hurts her relationship to her son like Madelon Claudet. Nor does she have too little money which displeases her daughter like Mildred Pierce. Stella Dallas is a very normal child of a working-class family who marries into wealth and that way has no problems to fulfill most of her daughter’s dreams. The only thing that is working against Stella Dallas is – Stella Dallas herself. The problem that the picture presents is the fact that Sella isn’t the most refined woman in the world – in fact, she is rather frumpy, sometimes loud and vulgar, behaves out-of-place too often and has an enormous lack of good taste. That way Stella Dallas became a rather two-faced character compared to other suffering movie-mothers – on the one hand she wants to do everything for her daughter but on the other hand she herself is the reason why her daughter might not achieve the social status her mother hopes for. Mildred Pierce and Madelon Claudet worked hard to get their children to the top – Stella Dallas basically has to disappear to keep her daughter at the top.

Because of this construction of the story and the ambivalent character it becomes difficult to truly get interested in both Stella Dallas and Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. Barbara Stanwyck is caught in a part that constantly asks her to change her character and her acting – sometimes she is over-the-top, impossibly unrefined and careless, sometimes she appears very nice, loveable and smart. It’s a steady up and down and the character is bended constantly to create a stirring melodrama but more than once Barbara Stanwyck seems to lose the grip on who Stella is and what she wants to express. How is Stella really? Why does her character develop in such a strange way? There are no answers and Barbara Stanwyck’s interpretation also leaves much to be desired.

She begins the movie in a rather charming way, as a young girl, hoping to get married to a rich man. Barbara Stanwyck already shows that Stella isn’t necessarily a very lovely girl once you get to know her closer – she is rather impatient, bitchy and vulgar. But Barbara Stanwyck mostly holds these ‘qualities’ to herself at this point and only hints at them. It’s clear that Stella wants to enter a better class and live a better live than she does right now and has her own plans to fulfill this dream but at the same time she is not only marrying for money but seems to be genuinely interested in her future husband. But only a few scenes later, after Stella gave birth to her daughter, she seems already tired of him and shows more signs of her uncouth nature.

It becomes hard to understand why Stella is devoting herself so much to her daughter since she doesn’t seem to care about anything than her own pleasure. Right after she comes homes from the hospital she immediately wants to go dancing despite her husband’s objections. This is why the development of the character becomes too confusing too often because while one would expect that Stella Dallas would learn to fit into her new life and status she becomes more and more out-of-place as the movie goes on, walking in a direction that could harm the reputation of her daughter. It’s never clear why she develops like this – the lovely and lively Stella from the beginning doesn’t connect at all with the later Stella who walks around a country club in an outfit that looks like a bad second-hand store threw up on her. The inconsistency in the writing and Barbara Stanwyck’s acting make it hard to care for Stella Dallas at all. Because it is not only the writing that goes more and more over-the-top during the run of the movie – also Barbara Stanwyck too often goes into a rather uncomfortable acting zone that not only distresses the viewer but even seems to bother Barbara Stanwyck herself. In a lot of scenes that involve the more trashy side of Stella, Barbara Stanwyck becomes frustratingly unconvincing since even she herself doesn’t seem to believe in what she does. Especially the scene on a train, when a friend of Stella is spreading around itch powder among the other passengers, is incredibly embarrassing as it is so out-of-place among the melodrama of the story and even Barbara Stanwyck seems to be uncomfortable to be there – and to hide this, she decided to overdo her whole performance in this scene with some loud, fake laughs and stereotypical white-trash behavior. It seems that in the end Barbara Stanwyck is the kind of actress, intelligent and very aware, that simply isn’t able to convincingly portray this kind of woman.

But thankfully there are also the other moments in her performance – the scenes with her daughter where she gets a chance to show a more serious and devoted side and she crafts a lot of emotional and honest moments that display Barbara Stanwyck’s full talents and are realized by her with a surprisingly modern realism. Especially the melodrama, the tear-jerking moments are the highpoints of her performance and she thankfully does it without overemphasizing the sentimental aspects but rather plays them in a way that serves the story but also works in context of her overall characterization. When no guests arrive at her daughter’s birthday party, Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas shows a welcoming sense of self-reflection (which unfortunately doesn’t last) and gives her the chance to deepen her character and show her talent for dignified tears and suffering. Barbara Stanwyck has also a very good chemistry with Anne Shirley who plays her daughter and there is one thing that she does excellently – showing her heart of gold. Stella Dallas may not be a perfect character, but Barbara Stanwyck clearly demonstrates that her love for her daughter is real and that way it makes perfectly sense that her daughter would stand by her even if other people laugh about her.

As mentioned before, she doesn’t have to make sacrifices in the same way that Madelon Claudet or Mildred Pierce did because Stella has a rich husband and is able to give her daughter a pleasant life – the problem is rather her own character which finally leads her to make the ultimate sacrifice, getting out of her daughter’s life and allowing her to connect with social groups that would never accept a woman like Stella Dallas. It’s mostly the moments when Stella starts to realizes her own faults that give Barbara Stanwyck her greatest opportunities. Her celebrated wordless scene in the train when she learns how much she embarrassed her daughter in a country club is a wonderful example of facial acting but she tops this moment at the end when she watches her daughter’s wedding from outside the house. Suddenly, all the traces of the past Stella are gone and what remains is a glorious face, shining from within, filling the dark screen with a wonderful amount of light and warmth, a relaxed feeling of joy and satisfaction that she could achieve what she always wanted the most – a happy life for her daughter.

Barbara Stanwyck provides some unforgettable moments and is able deliver a moving and emotionally engaging portrayal but unfortunately it is mixed with too many moments of uncomfortable over-the-top acting that almost ruin the entire experience but at the same time, she deserves some credit for following the screenplay and showing the ugly and unlikable sides of her character. Her best work was yet to come but it was a memorable first encounter with the little golden guy which gets

4 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

I really like it, but I agree there are some wild over the top acting moments.

joe burns said...

She" ll probably be fourth, can you do Garbo ?

dinasztie said...

I dislike these melodramatic roles. I admire you so much for being able to write such detailed and interesting reviews.

Fritz said...

Oh, thank you very much! That's the biggest compliment for me! (But your reviews are very detailed and interesting, too!!!)