Saturday, June 11, 2011

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas

Barbara Stanwyck received her very first Best Actress nomination for playing the title role of Stella Dallas. Brilliant Barbara Stanwyck. She's widely considered to be the greatest actress never winning an Oscar and rightfully so. Yes, she got that Honorary award much later but I don't think that her loss for Double Indemnity, one of the all-time best performances, is forgivable. I wonder with the words of Norma Desmond about the Academy. "Don't they know what a star looks like?". Stanwyck herself thought that she should have won the coveted award for this role as Stella Dallas. I think she didn't have very much chance over Garbo, Dunne and, of course, Luise Rainer. It's interesting that 1937 was "the time" for three of the nominees and yet none of them won. That makes me sad and I guess that fact makes people dislike Rainer's win so much.

Stella Dallas is such an unlikely and yet interesting movie. It's a typical 30s melodrama with all its drawbacks but I think some of it works quite well. Although it's not a stylish soap opera like many of the later melodramas. It's definitely not King Vidor's best work but I still liked it and I don't think it's as bad and trashy as many people say. The performances are (except for Barbara) quite horrible, especially the one by John Boles who plays Stella's husband. Anne Shirley is not much better, either. Sometimes I felt as if she played the lesbian lover of Stella Dallas, not her daughter. And when she was really "girlish", she was annoying as hell.

Thanks to my reviews on this blog, out of nowhere, Barbara Stanwyck became my favorite movie actress along with Jane Fonda (Deciding between them would be so tough. Interesting enough, I once asked Jane Fonda about Barbara Stanwyck and she said she really liked her but I'll tell about that later, if you're interested.). She has a presence and a voice like nobody and she's probably the most versatile actress of her era. Even the big shots like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn were quite repetitive sometimes but I never felt that with brilliant Barbara. Her range covers the femme fatale, the soap opera matriarch (not a trashy diva like Joan Collins and such), the insufferable bitch, the foul-mouthed dancer and the self-sacrificing mother.

Walter Matthau once said about Barbara that when she was good, she was great but when she was bad, she was terrific. Nothing could sum up Barbara's performance in Stella Dallas better. Stella is definitely a soap opera character (and a very unlikely one) and yet Barbara somehow made me feel sorry for Stella and care about her. Barbara didn't suffer from the movie as much as she could have and even more, she achieved real greatness in some of the scenes.

Many people are bashing her earlier scenes because it's overacted by Barbara. I have to both agree and strongly disagree. Yes, she was a bit hammy in some of the scenes but I always felt that it came mostly from the bit trashy character and it wasn't completely Barbara's fault. At first, Stella is a dreamer who wants to be a rich, sophisticated lady. She becomes rich, but not sophisticated. I guess Barbara brilliantly showed all the changes in this woman and how she gradually gave up herself. And only because of one thing: motherhood. Somehow, motherhood turns Stella into something very unlike her. She remains the same person but she also becomes very caring, loving and protective.

The previously mentioned hamminess works well, however, in the scene at the train where she's laughing in a very rude way and everybody's looking at her (that's where I saw the parallel between Stella and myself :D). Many would say it's a very embarassing moment but for me, it all worked.

Still, the real greatness in this performance comes after Stella's sacrifice. Interesting enough, her sacrifice is not as sentimental and melodramatic as I expected, it's much more quiet than I thought. After her over-the-top behaviour, Stella listens to a conversations where two girls are laughing at her. Barbara's face is so expressive and brilliant there. I was totally astonished by that sequence. Same goes for the one, where she's lying to her daughter about why they cannot be together. I don't want to give away much but it's really heart-breaking to see her. If I'm talking about heart-breaking moments I cannot forget the very last minutes of the movie when Stella is watching her daughter's wedding from the street. There was a small nuance that I observed that was totally amazing. Barbara bit her handkerchief. I don't know why but I think it was a moment when Barbara's genious came to surface.

Yes, this is the weakest one of Barbara's nominated performances but I still really liked her performance as Stella Dallas. Although the character is quite unlikely and even a little bit confusing, Barbara makes her so entertaining in a very weird way. I can't explain why I liked her this much but I was really blown away by some of the scenes. The really brilliant Barbara showed her greatness that had yet to bloom after this movie. Really great early work.

This was my last review of a nominated Barbara Stanwyck performance. I'm incredibly sad. Incredibly sad. :( :( Who's gonna make me feel good? :( :D

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I loved this performance immensely, and I am still a Stanwyck virgin so if you say this is her weakest nominated performance, it looks like I can only expected great things from Barbara in the future. =)

dinasztie said...

Oh, yeah Derek. :) I've recently discovered her brilliance. She's not for everyone, I guess but if you loved her even in this one, you'll be blown away by the rest. :)

Anonymous said...

For some reason, this is my least favorite of what I've reviewed so far...