The Miracle Woman

Dan Callahan,
The Miracle Woman
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012
ISBN13: 978-1617031830
US$35 (hb)

In one of her more direct moments, Barbara Stanwyck has said, “Acting is as important to me as eating and sleeping” (218).[1] Dan Callahan recounts this line towards the end of an impressively thorough book, a story of her life as it is seen through her films. This line derives its power, and a whole lifetime of meaningful intent, when viewed in the shadow of Stanwyck’s life as one of the most expressive actresses ever captured on screen.

Stanwyck was a diminutive figure, a woman with enough boldness to take care of herself, but who had the misfortune to be abused by more than anyone’s fair share of men. Even so she held her own in and around Hollywood: Ernest Hemingway respected her tough intelligence; Sam Fuller expressed a desire to cast her as Eva Peron; her integrity as an actor convinced censors to pass Baby Face in 1933. Throughout The Miracle Woman, Callahan includes some telling quotes from Stanwyck’s later life that suggest a mordant approach to life’s troubles, and her possession of alluring sangfroid.

It’s a joy to read such adulation of my favourite actress, and besides having an animated conversation with a fellow fan who loves to indulge in her work, absorbing her films on paper might be the next best thing to seeing her (celluloid) face in the flesh. Talking about why Stanwyck would stayed on the big screen – and the small one after the pictures ran out of room – Callahan contrasts her to the other greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. “Stanwyck’s style is almost entirely based on the smallest movements of her eyes and shifts of her facial expression to convey her feelings” (221). These feelings, which perhaps belonged to the single widest and most available range in the business, are described in depth. Her art is the art of seduction, and Callahan is well and truly seduced.

In turn, Callahan duly tries to seduce his readers by describing, in detail, much of what she does on screen, which becomes tiresome after a while and is often unsatisfying, the subtleties of human expression distorted by clunky prose. Much of the author’s previously published work could be summarised as a paean for the actors of the Classical age, including Stanwyck’s contemporaries Mary Astor, Ida Lupino, and Gloria Grahame. He is clearly aware of the state of Hollywood in those decades past, and of all its players, but his writing seems to follow a template of close, but very brief, surface analysis of stars through life and film, that is not quite suited to a book-length publication. It is perplexing, and frustrating, that he more or less introduces his love for Stanwyck, on page 27, by waxing lyrical that “a few seconds in a movie…meant everything” to her, but then becomes so transparently biased and sometimes inordinately cruel about her performances when not a fan of a film.

Perhaps symptomatic of a desire to not saturate The Miracle Woman too deeply in negativity, there are some troubling lacunae in Callahan’s book. Perhaps trying to please readers and, I believe, himself, it is unsurprising that such things have been left out. For example, I would like to know some more about the foundation of Stanwyck’s own opinions, including her admiration for the work of Ayn Rand, and her political conservatism. It might very well be that there are no recordings of this in the press, no materials about her views aside from scant mention. Callahan stipulated in his introduction that by and large he wanted to avoid speculation, specifically of the kind that has dominated much of the study around Stanwyck’s life and film work (“gossip” and “filler about Hollywood” as he calls it on page one). Even more than just paying respect to her and his readers, this makes sense when held up to her life; she largely avoided the tabloids, was respected by her peers, and did not fight for the camera’s attention.

What were the conditions surrounding Stanwyck’s desire to play an Ayn Rand heroine? Callahan doesn’t tell us; he only says that such desire was thwarted, that it represented her “dark side”. While it was Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead (USA 1949) who really appealed to her (a role that eventually went to Patricia Neal) I can see her as Dagny Taggart, her strong Western presence measured alongside her absolute ability to express love and desire. Her atypical beauty, broken through by salacious sexuality (undiminished at age 76 in The Thorn Birds [USA/Australia 1983]),[2] would transfer perfectly onto the heroine of Atlas Shrugged. While Rand is generally seen as a politically conservative figure, something of a threat to the freedom of the nation, the determination of her heroines is just that: determined. Unwilling to accept or succumb to failure, her strong female figures are nothing if not admirable.

Unimpressed with petty intrusions, publicly equanimous and fiercely self-assured (she once said that the part of acting she liked the least was its associated “fanfare and hullaballoo”), it seems plausible that Stanwyck would have kept so much of her life behind the greedy eyes of the press, and of biographers. But I get the impression that even if more information were available, Callahan might not include it. Is almost as though, because he adores her so much, and so unconditionally, that Callahan decides not to delve into aspects of her life that are unfavourable to him. He discards them, sometimes with a bitterness a little gentler than contempt, sometimes with blatant disinterest. At times, it seems that his love for her interferes with his work.

To account for this, more research into her activities would be necessary, with more of an exploration of her motives, her pleasures and disappointments. Stanwyck was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a militant group determined to uphold ‘the American way of life’, a phrase that is rightfully as terrifying as it sounds. How deeply was Stanwyck involved? Callahan recounts that her husband Robert Taylor indicated that she would have loved to name names, if she had been called. But Taylor himself never seemed like a trustworthy guy, with that slimy smile and those bland, nasty eyes, and could have been lying. I like to think that he was, and that Stanwyck’s conservatism wasn’t as staunch as the denial of detail makes it seem. By removing details (or has it always just been speculation?) she is constructed more negatively than she should be. But then again, this is inconclusive; nevertheless, her personality, her film choices, and her relationship might be richer to the reader with a knowledge that goes beyond the surface.

On the topic of Stanwyck’s collaboration with Billy Wilder, which bred one of her most critically acclaimed and widely recognised star roles, Callahan comments on the vagaries of the director’s talents. Surprisingly, he bluntly dismisses the exceptional The Lost Weekend (USA 1945), suggesting it is nothing more than “showy fun”. Made directly after Double Indemnity (USA 1944), The Lost Weekend is a wonderful film, a rich portrait of an alcoholic that allowed Wilder to elaborate on his technical and cinematographic proficiency. Now not only do I disagree with this, but it seems to come from nowhere in particular, given that Callahan is predictably willing to appreciate many other Hollywood dramatic greats. There is a problem with his casual use of adjectives – at times his fluid prose can be marvellous but sometimes it’s as though he describes his feelings to a readership consisting entirely of people who agree with him, almost as though we have all had this conversation with him already.

In order to shed some intellectual light on the success of Ball of Fire (USA 1941), Callahan raises a single point raised by Robin Wood but neglects to engage with him. The directness of his demotic writing is, while conversational, strangely closed to differing views, and decreases his credibility. (Yet on page 145 he calls upon Parker Tyler’s reading of Walter and Keyes as closeted homosexuals and runs with it, albeit very briefly and with an unsatisfying, sketchy conclusion.) Ball of Fire is a screwball, for sure, but as Robin Wood says, it is quite a surprisingly sensitive and considerate one.[3]

While Stanwyck’s performance in Sorry, Wrong Number (USA 1948) gained her a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Callahan is rather dismissive of the film itself. He compares it to its source material – a radio play – and uses that to point out its inadequacies as an adaptation. He suggests that Litvak “keeps moving the camera away” from Stanwyck so she is defined primarily through the audible. Callahan sees this as one of the picture’s downfalls, but the constant pan of the camera around her apartment is one of the film’s defining triumphs, contributing to a heightened sense of spatial and sonic unease. As a film noir, Sorry, Wrong Number is one of the most claustrophobic, and Litvak’s vision is as essential as Stanwyck’s stellar performance.

This might just come down to a basic matter of opinion, an essential and not unwarranted question of personal taste. It is explanations that are sometimes unsatisfactory, for it seems that if Callahan likes the perspective that films provide on Stanwyck’s work, he will elaborate on them, but if not, they might be disdainfully cast aside. It is interesting that while Callahan expresses his love for Stanwyck, he seems to dislike an awful lots of her films, and disrespect a lot more. I see a lot of promise in many of the films which he rejects; whether or not this is because my admiration of her is of a different kind or because I have approached many of her films, at least in my earlier years, from a different scholarly perspective. His dislike for certain films, though, is often supported by unceremonious prose and this makes it difficult to properly consider his opinions as measured. He despises Litvak’s direction and indeed the entire film, and unfortunately labours the point so much as to nearly obliterate all respect for his opinion, denigrating Sorry, Wrong Number as “Litvak’s half-assed vacuum” (175).[4]

Sometimes Callahan’s dislike for a film or for one of Stanwyck’s performances comes through his writing as a sort of stubborn resignation. His more casual and idiomatic descriptiveness misses the mark, by bypassing any description whatsoever. On page 199, he writes that the chanteuse who sings the opening song for The Maverick Queen (USA 1956), Joni James, “sounds like her name”. I do not know what this means. On page 200, he accuses Trooper Hook (USA 1957) of being “a surprisingly blah film” and while I don’t really know what this means either, it is not so surprising a comment given the idleness that plagues much more of the book.

Double Indemnity appears to be Callahan’s favourite film. It’s the favourite of many of her admirers, and so much has been written about it that I hardly need to write more. But I always come back to the moment early on when Walter recounts the tale of a woman who killed her husband, and ended up in prison. Phyllis, a wonderful actor who so often betrays her deceitful nature when Walter isn’t looking, affected with what seems like a painful vulnerability, responds, “Perhaps it was worth it to her.” Phyllis is often described as the most cold-blooded of noir females, the least plagued with remorse. This line is her most sincere, the line which Stanwyck expresses with the most pathos. If it weren’t for all of her other sociopathic desires, that line, and that look, might almost make me understand.

While on the topic, Callahan quotes a line spoken by Keyes in reference to the fictional ‘Margie’, invented by Walter as a cover for his affair with Phyllis, and he gets it wrong. I will quote it here in defense of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s marvellous script for one of my most loved films. Callahan quotes Keyes as twice commenting that Margie “drinks straight from the bottle”. In fact, Keyes first bets that Margie “drinks from the bottle”, and later says, “I still bet she drinks from the bottle”. It seems strange that a cinephile would quote such a distinctive line incorrectly, particularly one from such a well-known film, particularly now that Google exists, and particularly because this is a book, and mistakes like this should not happen.

It’s easy to tell which films Callahan most enjoys watching, but it is difficult to appreciate his enthusiasm when the attention he gives a film is contingent on how much he likes it. Nevertheless, The Miracle Woman should be appreciated for its recognition of Barbara Stanwyck as an actress of the most versatile talent, the most powerful and nuanced women ever to grace the silver screen.[5] He finishes the book with an exultant honouring of Stanwyck’s entire career, but does leave the rest wanting, desirous of more attention. That said, the absence of deeper information points to a solemn truth regarding Stanwyck’s life: perhaps she didn’t have much else.

I think he gets it right in the end, this isolation that Stanwyck felt from her peers, perhaps even her friends, and the palpable loneliness that must arise from being one of the last greats of a generation who is left living. Callahan writes of the period in which Stanwyck faced death, was on the edge of life for two days, floating in and out. How would this have felt, to be gone, and then be forced to return, without will perhaps one way or the other? She lived alone, as a bachelorette, but was defined by her strength and resilience, her sense of humour, her amazonian intellect. At the acceptance of her AFI Life Achievement Award in 1987, Stanwyck paid tribute to Frank Capra, the man who made her a star. James Stewart was there, himself indebted to the directing talents of Capra, and he gave an agreeable nod and smiled at the mutual remembrance of this man. An aged Fred MacMurray, one of a long line of costars, looked on with inestimable respect and appreciation. At the same time, though, there were many disinterested faces in the crowd; did no one care for this star, one of the most talented of all time? Callahan writes that, “Stanwyck loved the movies, even at their most extreme and artificial, yet she was the actress who most often reminded the movies of reality”(222). Despite its flaws, hopefully Callahan’s book will broaden the scope of her appeal, introduce more readers to her contribution to film history, and her place as one of the most important, modern, and respected screen actors of all time.

Recounting one of Barbara Stanwyck’s scenes in Douglas Sirk’s All I Desire (USA 1953), Callahan describes Stanwyck’s tone and composure as expressing “the pride of sheer survival” (182). At times, throughout this book, surviving might seem like the most important thing to Stanwyck. But above all else, above the physical and emotional resilience that brought her through orphanages, burlesques, and lonely marriages, Stanwyck did so much more than survive. She created.

[1] A telling parallel to a quote from her much younger years, ‘I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat’ (9).

[2] ‘No one had better legs, not even Dietrich,’ said Edith Head.

[3] Billy Wilder praised Stanwyck for her ‘gutsy sincerity.’ She herself said that, ‘Every character I played had to be sincere.’ While he admires her, this unfortunately is an important personal desire that Callahan forfeits in his own interpretation of her presence.

[4] He writes that Sorry, Wrong Number is plagued by Stanwyck’s ‘bulldozer acting’ (176), and he mocks her accent two pages earlier. In what I think is a much more considered take, Scott Eyman praises her accent in a review of the book more genuine than much of the book itself. From The Wall Street Journal: ‘I love her because of the way she called Fred MacMurray’s character “Waltuh” in Double Indemnity – that little touch of the Brooklyn gutter that gave her an authenticity other actresses lacked.’

[5] James Naremore, in his 1990 book Acting in the Cinema, uses his introduction to express regret he could not extensively study Stanwyck’s performance style, although he does reference her briefly several times.

About the Author

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross is a doctoral candidate in Media: Screen + Sound at La Trobe University in Melbourne.