Saturday, May 2, 2009

behind the sunglasses; why barbara stanwyck isn't camp


2    [kamp]  Show IPA
1.something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental.
2.a person who adopts a teasing, theatrical manner, esp. for the amusement of others.

The best way to define Camp is to list some Camp things: Busby Berkeley's films with Ruby Keeler, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Noel Coward, Victor Mature, feather boas, stereoscopes, and ornate Tiffany lamps-things that hold special sentimental value for certain people who believe in them, and are sources of amusement to other, more derisive types.
-Thomas Meehan (for the New York Times, March 21, 1965)

1. As the poor middle child on full house that no one really cared about would say, HOW RUDE.
2. I don't hate camp, so this post is not about why I think Stanwyck is better than Camp.
3. I'm biased. You could fill the Grand Canyon to its brim with my bias.

Now before I huff, puff, and try to blow his statement down, it only seems fair to start with a few reasons why Stanwyck could be seen as Camp. 

1. She did have a very emotional style of acting, and when mishandled or misused by a director on rare occasions her emotional outbursts appear maudlin and overextended. 

I think the problem with the above argument is that her style of acting was not theatrical in the sense that Marlene Dietrich was theatrical. The joy in a Barbara Stanwyck performance is the fact that her emotion, when channeled properly, had a very raw intensity to it. Frank Capra advised her that the greatest tool a film actress has is her eyes, and I think that this, more than her very distinctive walk, is what makes her one of the greatest actresses of all time. I've always thought this was extremely apparent in her final scene in The Thorn Birds  where, according to the director of the series, the look on Richard Chamberlain's face was an incredibly real reaction to her performance, and after it was completed he found Stanwyck shaking behind the door. In her performances there was always a humanity and a warmth to her that escaped the confines of character, like in the insert at the end of Double Indemnity which narratively seemed incredibly out of place, but marked Stanwyck as an actress that, no matter how terrible the character, was never entirely evil. The same can be said of the famous murder scene itself. No violence is shown, only the look on Stanwyck's face, her reaction to the crime they are committing. In The Thorn Birds her character was also an awful, twisted woman, but I have to believe that in casting Stanwyck they wanted the audience to feel some degree of sympathy with this lonely woman. 

Another example is one of the final scenes (that starts around the 3 minute mark) in Frank Capra's Ladies of Leisure from 1930. As an early talkie and soapy melodrama the material never soars, but one of the last scenes in the picture, for me, forecasts why Stanwyck became a star. In the scene Barbara is asked by her sweetheart's mother to give him up because they are from completely different worlds. Both actresses break down, but the way they do so is strikingly different. The older actress merely quavers, Stanwyck bursts. And it's different from method, Stanley Kowalski pushing his fingers into his temples or Charles Castle breaking down in The Big Knife. She had a way of making the audience think that she was really in pain, to the point that sometimes I find it almost uncomfortable to watch.

When I think of Camp, I think of some of Bette Davis' later performances, primarily in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. She was a wonderful actress, and I find it incredibly sad that her talent was so demeaned as she got older. Stanwyck avoided this by moving to television, where she is probably best known for her performance as Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley. Instead of being turned into a monster because of her age, she continued to do her own stunts and ride horses, showcasing her vitality even though she was in her late 50s and by Hollywood standards should've been sitting in a rocking chair knitting sweaters and looking sweet and senile. She didn't ride side saddle. She was the boss, the head of the family, and she knew it. I haven't had a chance to watch the entire series, but in what I have watched I would call her a role model for older actresses, someone who was lucky enough to continue performing with dignity (and win an emmy for it).

Barbara Stanwyck was an incredibly versatile and respected actress. There was always a sense that she was still Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn, never a cold glamour queen, and if the flash in her eyes was all performance, all planned, than she was the greatest Camp actress of all time, and as such surpasses the term entirely.


  1. I would have had the same exact reaction as you to reading that quote-- Barbara Stanwyck isn't camp! I think there are two exceptions; Double Indemnity, in which the wig is the only thing that makes it campy, and Witness to Murder, which has that misdirected campiness you were talking about.

    She's my absolute favorite actress, and I think she deserves more than being lumped in with feather boas and ornate tiffany lamps! Sheesh...

  2. kate-ikr??? it seemed preposterous to me. she's one of my absolute favorites as well.

    i agree with your above assertions, and would add crime of passion to that list.