Be it Marwyck, the Irish farmhouse with stables and brood mares where she lived in the '40s, or the Broadway apartment she shared in the '20s with two other chorus girls, Barbara Stanwyck has always lived in a style that says actress . On the big front door of the Beverly Hills house where she now lives is a small mirror--for guests to check their faces: It's the perfect movie star front door. And Barbara Stanwyck answers it herself.
"I've got an IQ of 7," she says, quickly leading the way to a red-carpeted living room. "I've been working with barbells and I threw my back out. So I'm wearing a corset. You can't see it, of course. On top of that my throat is raw. Two things wrong is one too many. But every moment from now until April 9, I live in absolute terror. Believe me."
Believe her: On Thursday, Barbara Stanwyck receives the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award at the Beverly Hilton. And the woman who is practically Hollywood's equivalent of Garbo (in terms of privacy) is not exactly overwhelmed. "Honored, yes, but I tried to get out of the damn thing," she confessed on a recent afternoon, sighing. "But (AFI president) Bonita Granville worked on me, and so did George Stevens Jr., and then they got Charlton Heston to work on me. Chuck said, 'You will be there.' So I will be there." Finally, reluctantly, Stanwyck had told AFI co-chairman Stevens she would appear. But she would do only that--appear on Thursday.
The question is why. Stanwyck, in a red jogging suit serving coffee and answering phones and right up close looking nothing like her 79 years, is something to see. She has an almost unlined face, with the kind of Irish skin that begs for a camera. The eyes still blaze for a close-up. She's lucid, and best of all the voice still sounds like coffee grounds. So why not be happy about the AFI? After all, the former orphan from Brooklyn has belonged to Hollywood now for 60 years.
"When I'm doing a role, a good role, I'm being someone other than me," Stanwyck said, taking a swivel chair, and swiveling. "See, I'm a true Irishman, and I glide with the leprechauns. They say the Irish are brash, but there's also a quietness. Sometimes I can sit a whole evening and say nothing--but I absorb everything. I happen to like being alone a lot. I'm called a little nuts. I call it concentration. So I have a shell I creep into. So? To my friends who don't like it, I say, 'That's too bad.' "
To her fans, Stanwyck would say something else. She admits that, "Yes, the work was good, but I'm not Albert Schweitzer." In fact, Stanwyck has an uncanny way of looking at herself almost in the third person. "I'm always surprised I looked so well on the screen," she said quietly. "Some of the pictures I never saw, and I stopped going to rushes in the early '30s." Stanwyck explained that she took the advice of director Frank Capra, her Hollywood mentor.
"It was one of the tricks he taught me, not to go," Stanwyck said matter-of-factly. "Mr. Capra said, 'You never really look at yourself. You're always looking at the veins sticking out of your neck or how you hold your hands. So never look at yourself while you are working. Only go later, when the thing is done.' I was noticing the dainty things, the feminine things, and missing the larger picture. Capra had such patience with me!"
But Stanwyck was a director's darling, right from the start. From Capra she segued to Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, King Vidor, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Rouben Mamoulian, William Wellman, George Stevens and almost everyone else. (Several directors, like Cecil B. De Mille and Douglas Sirk, claimed that Stanwyck was not only their favorite actress, but also their favorite professional.) Instinctively, too, the directors knew what material to give the actress. Stanwyck was never typecast, thus she's not now remembered by a particular image. For a star, that works both for and against you. "I never wanted to play the same things," Stanwyck said, adding, "Only once was I really worried in terms of image."
The movie was Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity." "I was scared because I'd never before played an out-and-out killer. I was scared and so was Fred (MacMurray). I thought, 'This role is gonna finish me.' And I remember Billy saying, 'An actress is supposed to play everything. Are you an actress or are you a mouse?' So I thought about it, and I thought, 'Who am I kidding? What am I hiding behind?' I said to myself, 'Shut up trying to analyze everything. Say yes or no!' "