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SALUTING STANWYCK: A LIFE ON FILM : 'When I'm Doing a Role, a Good Role, I'm Being Someone Other Than Me . . .'

April 05, 1987|PAUL ROSENFIELD

Two careers, one marriage; the equation has to be hard. Stanwyck looked intensely into the observer's eyes. "Living is hard," she said knowingly. "Getting along with another person is hard. When it doesn't work out, when it falls apart, there's pain. You say I'm known as someone who takes care of herself. It's true. But I worked hard at the marriage because I wanted it." Stanwyck seemed to have perspective on the subject, saying she never thought of marrying again. ("I'm concentrating on work," she told Hedda Hopper at the time of the divorce from Taylor. "What that takes is serenity, beauty, quiet, friends when I need them, and the valuable state of being alone.")

Now, out of the blue, Stanwyck said: "Bob was bored. It took me a long time to accept that. To understand it. He said he wanted to be a married bachelor. And I remember telling him that every man who ever lived wants that, wants it both ways. . . . The pain followed. But it comes with the territory."

The territory was work. The roles had a range probably unmatched-- by anyone. From murderess ("Blowing Wild") to other woman ("Forbidden") to reporter ("Meet John Doe"). From invalid ("Sorry Wrong Number," for which she received one of her four Academy Award nominations) to gold digger ("The Lady Eve") to evangelist ("Miracle Woman"). From mistress ("Executive Suite") to cattle queen ("Forty Guns") to actress ("All I Desire"). From shoplifter ("Remember the Night") to burnt-out case ("Clash By Night") to chorine ("Ladies of Burlesque").

The cost, on some level, was a private life. "But in those days we could at least come home and have a civilized dinner, even a social hour," Stanwyck reasoned. "It was a rational day from 9 to 6; now, working on TV, you have to be up at 4. Four a.m. to 10 p.m. is tough on a woman. I can't imagine actors today sustaining a marriage. Or coming home and listening to kids. Kids need to be listened to." (Stanwyck's adopted son, Dion, has been out of her life for decades. He goes unmentioned.) "I don't know how TV actors have time for spouses and children. At night, you have a pot of soup and go to sleep. It's a brutal life."

Stanwyck knows. Though she adored the four seasons as the matriarch Barkley in "Big Valley," she had no fun at all with "The Colbys" last season as the sister of Colby patriarch Charlton Heston. She refers to the sudser as "that turkey. . . . It wasn't acting, it was just the same scene every week, in a different dress. I mean, you open your mouth and what comes out is not dialogue! I don't have very much integrity, but I have enough integrity that I got out."

How did she get into the turkey in the first place? Stanwyck explained that her house burned down, and it was either work or wait around L'Ermitage, where she was temporarily living. "And then things were told one way that worked out another way. Aaron (Spelling, producer of 'The Colbys') is a kind man, but the telling of it was better than it was on paper. I wanted a legal out, and I got it. At the beginning, I told Aaron, 'If it doesn't gel, I want to be able to get out without scrapes.' So I did. Aaron asked me to come back for four or six shows, but that doesn't work. Four or six appearances hurts the rhythm the show does have. When you can't win, there's no point wasting your life. Don't be a bore. Move on. I got out nicely." Also, and importantly, she also didn't bad-mouth the show while appearing on it.

Stanwyck's understandable ax is with modern writing, TV or otherwise. When you've had Brackett-and-Wilder dialogue (or Odets or O'Casey), you come to expect something. Her sneakered foot hit the floor when writing was discussed. "On 'Colbys,' I said, 'Give me something to work with! You're not letting me work.' My work is in there," Stanwyck said, pointing to another wing of the house. "In there, I go over and over a scene. Not only the words. You see, acting is silence, sometimes, when it works. On 'Colbys,' they were giving me talk-talk-talk."

Certainly writers paid more attention to stars once upon a time. "The Philadelphia Story," for example, was tailored by Philip Barry to a T for Katharine Hepburn. Stanwyck singles out "Stella Dallas" (1937, her first Oscar nomination). "She wasn't me, that woman, but she was a woman I understood completely. She was good, cheap but good, and I could play her. Sam Goldwyn made sure everything was first-class. He may have come out of the penny arcade, but he took a lot with him--and what he took he used." But writers? "Writers then knew a part of you. I could never answer a question about a character until I was playing her, so I was no help to writers. But writers used to look at your work, and they knew a certain part of you."

A part of Barbara Stanwyck has stayed with her characters. Or been left behind. "When you finish," she said slowly, "you walk off the set and a little part of yourself stays there. It's gone and done and you did it and you feel a little bit of emptiness after it's over. You thought it had left you, but it hadn't. It's that damn Irish in me. You say to yourself, 'I hope she lives.' "

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