Thursday, October 4, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck in GOLDEN BOY

A Broadway revival of the classic Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy, arrives later this year.  Because of that, I watched the movie version made during Hollywood's golden age.  It's another movie that makes fans of classic films wonder what magic potion had been put in the commissary coffee of Hollywood studios in 1938 that made actors, directors, writers produce such a bonanza of exceptional work the following year.  Golden Boy is one of the many classics released in 1939.  Screen rookie William Holden takes on the title role of the complicated boxer.  Lee J. Cobb played the Italian papa to Holden's prizefighter.  (The actors played father and son.  Both were in their 20s.  Cobb was 27.)   The real knock-out in this movie is Barbara Stanwyck as Lorna Moon.  Wow.  What an actress.
Back in New York City, I met two casting directors who both stressed that young actors should be watching classic films -- movies made before the 1980s and many in black and white -- as part of their homework.  I'd add, so should young entertainment reporters.  Young actors seeking a career on Broadway could not only study dramas, comedies and musicals written after 1979.  They'd have to know the classics.  To me, the same applies to those who seek film and TV careers.  If I had a daughter who wanted to act in films and we couldn't afford acting classes for her, I'd tell her to rent classic Stanwyck movie DVDs.  If you can't pick up great screen acting tips from Barbara Stanwyck, you need to consider another profession.  The  Clifford Odets play opened on Broadway in 1937.  Previews for the revival start in early November at the Belasco Theatre.  Over the summer, an edition of The New York Times had an article about the late, famous acting teacher, Stella Adler.  In it was a quote of hers about Odets' Golden Boy:  "Lorna is like we are -- brainwashed to think of success in terms of popularity.  In our world, we don't really know or care about quality; it's all about money and publicity.  It's a sickness."  Doesn't that apply to today's reality TV and Red Carpet-obsessed culture?  Cable's Bravo channel used to promote its award-winning quality show, Inside the Actors Studio, quite heavily.  The show's still on but you'd hardly know it because the channel now heavily promotes its Real Housewives reality show franchise.  That Stella Adler quote stayed with me.  I want to see the Golden Boy revival.  I know the movie is probably quite different from the play.  Four people wrote the screenplay and not a one of them was Clifford Odets.  Also, old Hollywood production codes were in effect.  Some of the play's mature elements may have been diluted or evaporated for the film adaptation.  Some of what Stella Adler said about Lorna is in Barbara Stanwyck's portrayal.  And something more.  Stanwyck shows us why Lorna let herself be "brainwashed."  As soon as the movie opens, we see a frazzled Tom Moody, Manhattan boxing promoter, getting an earful from his shrew of a wife on the phone.  If he wants a divorce -- and he does -- it's gonna cost him.  Tom wants to marry Lorna but the shrew is making things difficult.  Lorna doesn't mind waiting to make things legal and respectable.  As she says, "...Otherwise, I'm just a dame from Newark.  I don't like the feeling."  Her attire suggests that she's a woman who means business, a woman who can hold her own in a man's world.  This character is a perfect fit for Stanwyck.  Tom (played by Adolphe Menjou) needs a hot boxer to manage so he can make money.  His annoying wife wants money he doesn't have.  The World War I combat veteran wishes it was 1928 again when the town was flush.  Watch the look in Stanwyck's eyes as she recalls, "My mother died in '28."  That loss changed Lorna.
Tom's luck will change when a curly-haired young boxing hopeful barges into his office.  He's the tough yet tender-hearted, talented Joe Bonaparte.  Boxer.  And violinist.
His Italian father prays Joe will embrace the fine arts and become a classical violinist.  But Joe can fight.  He's not just a palooka.  He's an intellectual boxer.  This story is the conflict of art versus money.      Joe is a guy from a low-income neighborhood.  His dad always had to struggle to make a buck.  Joe's 21.  He reads books.  He's self-taught.  But art can take time before you start to get anywhere. "Money's the answer.  I can get it fighting," he says.  He needs money.  Tom needs money.  Lorna needs for Tom to make money.  All three are fighters in their own way. For all three, money is fast freedom from pain.
Mr. Bonaparte to Joe is like an agent of Blanche DuBois' desperate plea that she'll make to her sister, Stella, in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.  He'd share her sentiment "Don't hang back with the brutes."  Lorna and Tom discover Joe's artistic side when they visit him at home with his father. Director Rouben Mamoulian shows us that art is Joe's true calling.  Notice that, when Joe holds the violin, he's framed lovingly near an image of the Virgin Mary on the wall. Boxing has Joe's body.  Music has his soul.
Through his music, some of Lorna's soul be revealed too.  Almost against her will.
A Barbara Stanwyck character was the ambitious woman who was often the smartest guy in the room.  She could pull a fast one on the guys but often got tripped up on her own game, letting a vulnerability fall out.  It's fascinating to see her play both keys at the same time -- think of how she did this with comic excellence in The Lady Eve, Christmas in Connecticut and Ball of Fire and with dramatic brilliance in Double Indemnity, Meet John Doe and The Furies.  Lorna pitches a fake romantic interest in Joe to seduce him into the ring.  Joe is attracted to Lorna but conflicted about boxing.  Joe:  "My nature isn't fighting."  She slugs him in the ego with "I like men who reach for a slice of fame." Her kisses her.  She knocks him down with "You got plenty of speed but in the wrong direction."
But Stanwyck reveals that, for Lorna, this is all mask on top of camouflage.  She's being pulled from money to art.  She's truly attracted to Joe.  She cares for Tom but she's not really in love with him.  From the hard times she's had probably since her mother died,  Tom Moody is a soft place to fall.  She's young but she's tired.  She's been unlucky in love.  Lorna will settle for peace and quiet.  Joe's father, probably more so than Tom ever did, sees into the beauty of Lorna's soul when he tenderly says " sweet, gentle girl."  She's picked herself up after being knocked down by life.  She's learned how to be manipulative in order to survive.  She tells Tom that she can make the reluctant fighter fight.  How?  Her answer to Tom is, "I'm a dame from Newark and I know a dozen ways."  But only the Bonaparte gentlemen notice something "so sad" about her.  Joe will become a big success in the ring.  He'll be a champ. He'll reach for and get that "slice of fame."
The dark side of celebrity comes in his association with the gangster, Eddie Fuseli.
Joseph Callelia was a pro at this kind of ethnic role in the '30s and '40s.  And he never played the same kind of guy the same way twice.  Each performance was distinct.  His others credits include After the Thin Man, Five Came Back, Gilda and For Whom The Bell Tolls.  He's wonderful in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.  Callelia was in retirement when he passed on Francis Ford Coppola's offer to play Don Corleone in The Godfather.  His Fuseli can intimidate a guy such as Tom Moody.  But he doesn't intimidate Lorna.
Another classic Stanwyck moment:  Fuseli stares at her legs as she sits atop a desk.  She lets him stare.  She also makes sure that he gets a good look at her face -- it's a face that dares the gangster to want anything more than a look at her legs.  Stanwyck is so alive, so present, so modern in Golden Boy.  She took a risk by being bold in the women she played.  That was a bravery in her acting that kept her work  feeling vibrant and contemporary well into her senior years.  As a girl, my mother went to see new Barbara Stanwyck movies constantly.  As a boy, my friends and I thought Barbara Stanwyck was just too cool as the matriarch on the hit 1960s TV western series, The Big Valley.  As adults, my mother and I were both wowed by Stanwyck's performance in the 1983 TV miniseries based on the hit novel, The Thornbirds. That's another lesson young actors could learn from Barbara Stanwyck.  It's not all about getting on the red carpet as soon as possible so you can tell entertainment reporters who "did" your dress.  It's about doing the work and having longevity in a career.  Stanwyck's career longevity was a role model.
She had received the first of four Best Actress Oscar nominations for her magnificent 1937 performance as the ambitious, self-sacrificing mother named Stella Dallas. 1939's Golden Boy was the beginning of a beautiful friendship for screen newcomer William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who started her film career in 1929.  The role has been written for John Garfield to do on Broadway but, something happened, and Luther Adler played Joe Bonaparte.  Garfield, disappointed, went to Hollywood.  He scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination with his film debut as the hard-luck musician in 1938's Four Daughters.  The movie and Garfield were such a hit with audiences that a sequel went into production.  Garfield's performance shows you how right he would've been for Golden Boy on Broadway in 1937.  In 1978, Holden and Stanwyck were co-presenters on the Academy Awards.  Holden won Best Actor for Billy Wilder's 1953 World War II prison drama, Stalag 17.  He also starred in Wilder's Sunset Blvd., Born Yesterday, The Country Girl, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Network.  Instead of reading the written banter, he affectionately and unexpectedly admitted to the audience that he was almost fired from and replaced in Golden Boy because his inexperience showed.  But because of Barbara Stanwyck's "...professional integrity...encouragement...and generosity," he was there tonight.  One of the most touching and memorable Oscar telecast moments of the 1970s.  Look for it on YouTube.
The two friends also acted together in Executive Suite (1954).  Both did films based on other Clifford Odets plays.  He starred in The Country Girl (1954).   She starred in Clash by Night (1952).  Barbara Stanwyck.  Wow.  What an actress.  What a great actress.


  1. Can you contact me privately? I would like to discuss your Stanwyck article in more detail. Thanks!

  2. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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