Apr 24, 2014

Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

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It took me some time to formulate my feelings towards Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas into words. Because for the most part, I was unsure of how I felt towards her. What I can't deny is her amazing screen presence--she's got a sultry confidence that oozes out of her like clockwork which in turn makes her incredibly sexy even if she wasn't a conventional beauty by Hollywood standards. That said, her Stella is an unusual creation--it's a packaging of fine acting mixed with off-the-charts acting that annoys and charms all at once. So I struggled a bit in figuring out just how much I liked Stanwyck here, as one typically does when faced with divisive performances. But it got me thinking: perhaps my indifference towards Stella and Stanwyck was the desired effect after all?

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 photo ScreenShot2014-04-20at15002AM.jpgStella is a pretty divisive character. She's a gaudy thing capable of beguiling some folks while putting off others. Being loud and abrasive is sensitive territory for an actor in that it can easily prompt people to deduce a number of negative things: that you're over-the-top, that you're overdoing it, hammy, annoying etc. What I've noticed from other criticisms on this performance is that she does a little too much, ultimately making her work feel off-putting. But with a little reflection I realized that the only reason why I didn't like Stella was because of her penchant for being obnoxious, and since that's a staple quality of the character itself, then shouldn't that mean that Stanwyck is doing something right if she can evoke these feelings out of me? Any negativity I had towards her were sort of like that of the folks sitting on the train with her as she guffaws to the brink of death: you sort of give Stella/Stanwyck a WTF look and wonder when she's going to tone it down a notch. But I think that part of the beauty of this performance is that Stanwyck doesn't hold back--she goes all in whether she's quietly conveying some devastatingly heartbreaking emotions or whether she's prancing around hollering and irritating the hell out of all of us with her outlandishness. She's a hard pill to swallow, so to speak, but I don't think she's ever bad per se. I thought she was marvelous in her earliest scenes--she's precise and cunningly brilliant in the way she exudes virginity to reel in Stephen Dallas. There's an irresistible quality to Stanwyck in her early scenes that hits you: you know Stella's putting on an act but you're so charmed by her regardless. My biggest issue was the convoluted unraveling of her character: once she's married, Stella morphs with a simple cut of the scene into a completely different being. She's loud, garish, stubborn, shameless, with almost no transition in between. She becomes more and more tacky with every subsequent scene, (especially confusing since she married Stephen with the hopes of living a better and presumably more tasteful and opulent life) and the huge disconnect between early Stella and later Stella is frustratingly perplexing. As talented a performer as Stanwyck is, she's not the most naturally gifted at playing tacky and unrefined. That's because she's at her best when playing intelligent, refined, and calculating women (see her Jean in The Lady Eve or her Phyllis in Double Indemnity) and so while she's effective at playing tacky/gaudy Stella, it's not the most innate I've seen her and it seems like Stanwyck is forcing it. The movie doesn't do much to help her in terms of consistency--she'll be tacky-tacky-tacky but once it's time for a more serious scene, such as when Stephen visits during Christmas causing Stella to be flushed with warmth and love again, Stanwyck quickly sheds the affectation in her voice and suddenly sounds like a sophisticated lady. So it seems like both film and artist didn't quite know how to balance out Stella's eccentricities, but that's not to say that Stanwyck's performance suffers because of it. Her loud acting is enough to hit its purpose and her quieter acting is just brilliant. Although I initially was indifferent towards Stanwyck, I have an appreciation for what these vastly different dimensions mean for her character. And with that I give her work (just barely)



  1. If I remember it correctly, my problem with the performance was jumping in & out of character here and there.

    But what she gets perfectly are the scene in the train (when listening in) and the ending through the window. Heartbreaking. I still think I should've maybe given it more than 3. But it's quite inconsistent.

    1. That's my issue too. She could be really gaudy in one scene and completely normalized and tame in another. But...overall I'd say that she does a good enough job in general for me to give her an extra statue. Though just barely.

      And what exactly is stopping you from giving her a higher score? :)

    2. I just wrote like the greatest reply ever and it got deleted for some reason. :(

      whatever. :D

  2. Though it feels like AGES since I watched this and I was focusing more on Anne Shirley's performance, Stanwyck still stood out as the best part of this film. The ending has especially stuck out for me. I remember it being a totally over the top, melodramatic performance but still delicious and emotional somehow. It's definitely a balancing act. I need a rewatch, but I remember her as a 5 for me.

    As for Anne Shirley, I can see why you might find both her and Stanwyck's characters annoying. I liked her fine because she captured the sort of the snotty embarrassment her mother brings her. But it's definitely not a likable perf per se. Great review! :)

    1. I agree! It's over the top and melodramatic in a way that's...fitting for the character and the performance.

      Ugh, I think Shirley encompassed her character the way it was written, but my god was she annoying. MOTHER! MOTHER! OH MOTHER! Stfu Laurel