From Femme Fatale to Hausfrau: Faces of Barbara Stanwyck
Probably the most potent images film fans have of Barbara Stanwyck are cool man-eater roles such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or fiercely competent, sexually confident charmers such as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve. But lately I’ve been exploring some of her less celebrated works and find these equally affecting. While Stanwyck’s ball-of-fire dames are electrifying, the actress also imbued more commonplace women with great nuance and energy, bringing both strength and vulnerability to portrayals of average women in extreme dilemmas (Witness to Murder, Jeopardy, Crime of Passion ) or everyday situations (There’s Always Tomorrow, My Reputation, Clash By Night). Regardless of the role, Stanwyck never stints. She’s thoughtful and subtle every time, making each woman, a complex being deserving of our respect. Even an apparently weak sister like Jessica Drummond in My Reputation is a loving, layered portrayal.
My Reputation’s Jessica Drummond is miles away from the kind of dynamic force I associate with Barbara Stanwyck. She’s meeker, blander and well, just more mundane- a timid, conventional housewife. She’s so meek, in fact, that it took a while for this film fan to accept that, yes, this is really Barbara Stanwyck and, yes, the character she’s playing is really every bit as nice and conventional as she seems. But once I adjusted to Stanwyck’s tepid new temperature, I was nearly as rapt by this portrayal of this buttoned-down suburbanite as I am by her more spectacular characters.
There Isn’t Anything to Do
When we meet Jessica Drummond, her life is in turmoil. She’s just lost her husband to a wasting illness and now she’s unmoored and grieving. Both Jessica’s conformist normalcy and her extreme distress are neatly encapsulated in the film’s simple opening scene. A sympathetic housekeeper has broken with household routine and let the grieving Jessica sleep late. But when she awakens, Jessica isn’t soothed by the extra sleep, she’s upset. She hops out of bed distressed, a bit frantic that it’s already 10 a.m. But then Jessica slows down, remembering reluctantly that things are different now. She’s no longer on-call. She’s a widow. And since she isn’t “MRS. Paul Drummond” anymore, it really doesn’t matter if she sleeps in this or every morning because, as she says despairingly, “there isn’t anything to do after all.”
Not having “anything to do” becomes a major theme of the film. Illustrated in a series of unsettling scenes, it’s becomes clear that most of Jessica’s community expects her to do just that: nothing. Jessica’s imperious mother, still wearing widow’s weeds after 25 years, demands that Jessica efface her own youth and sexuality by wearing black garb too. At the grocery store, married friends engage her in gossip about the “bad” behavior of other single women, a warning that Jessica will have to comport carefully to remain in their good graces.
Further, Jessica’s two young sons are leaving home, heading off to boarding school in the footsteps of their late father. And though her large house is now nearly empty, Jessica retains a housekeeper (out of loneliness and loyalty), meaning there’s really nothing for her to do their either. Her only regular activity is the uninspiring, socially-approved volunteer work she does at the local hospital. Jessica’s life, once a whirl of parental obligations, wifely duties and social engagements is suddenly very lonely, very dull, and very circumscribed. When she does step out, as to a cocktail party with old friends, a friend’s husband gets her alone and makes an aggressive sexual overture, a further reminder that a single woman’s reputation is precarious and that staying home is her safest bet.
Jessica’s mother expects she’ll make widowhood her whole life. She’s worn widow’s weeds for 25 years and takes it for granted that Jessica will follow in her footsteps. Jessica refuses, but this isn’t an easy moment for her. Through Stanwyck’s cautious, sensitive performance we see just how painful it is for this woman to say no, to cause displeasure, to make any kind of wave. Softly but insistently, she tells her mother that society no longer requires such uniforms of widows. It turns out that this mild, people-pleasing woman has an unexpected reserve of will.
Though Jessica refuses the widow’s weeds, she does try her best to be a good girl. And it’s rough on her. When her sons go off to boarding school (their father’s alma-mater), there’s really nothing left. One evening, we watch her pace her large empty house until she can’t stand it anymore. In a fit of agitated loneliness, she rushes to the home of her best friend (Eve Arden). Dressed in dark skirt and jacket, reminiscent of the widow’s weeds she’d rejected, Jessica enters her Arden’s house and almost immediately begins to break down. Her confusion and loneliness are palpable when, instead of rushing to her friend’s open arms, she stands in front of a stuffed chair, holding tightly to its back and weeping, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I seem to be going to pieces.” Frantic, she moves farther into the room, standing in front of the fireplace, grabbing the mantle, still crying, “What am I going to do? Everything is closing down on me.” She then rushes from the mantle to the edge of an armchair, ”What’s the matter with me Jen? Why I can’t seem to stop this crying?” In these brief actions, Jessica’s isolation is perfectly drawn. She rushes from object to object, trying to wring from them the support and intimacy her community won’t give.
But fortunately, Arden isn’t typical of the Jessica’s clenched, repressive clan. Instead she’s a real friend, both truthful and affectionate. Embracing Jessica, stroking her, bringing her hot tea, Arden speaks frankly, ” You’re no longer Mrs. Paul Drummond, you’re Jessica Drummond. But your life’s not finished!..It makes me sick the way you’ve let everyone manage you your whole life…You’ve got to start being yourself for a change…. “
But Jessica doesn’t know how to be herself . She doesn’t even know where to begin. So Arden provides a direction. She invites Jessica to accompany herself and husband on a ski trip west. The prescription is exactly right. The trip provides Jessica the symbolic freedom she needs. Away from her pompous mother and “friends”, she starts to forge a fresh start. She relaxes, she plays, she explores.
Marooned on the slopes with a broken ski (she may not be an athlete, but at least she’s adventuring), she meets playful, outdoorsy George Brent and is soon letting her hair down, literally. Back at Ardens’ rustic lodge, having a cozy toddy by the fire, her piquant, unusual beauty is highlighted. Most noticeably, Jessica’s typically tidy, ladylike hair is suddenly loose and long. It doesn’t matter that loosened hair is a cinematic cliche, this shot of a gorgeous, stimulated Stanwyck packs a convincing visceral punch. She looks fresh and sensual. So happy and flush you wonder if this play-time in the woods is the first time she’s experienced something like real youth.
But though Brent helps awaken Jessica’s dormant desires, their romance doesn’t solve her problems. Neither her crowd, nor her mother approve of him. Further, the relationship makes her two sons resentful and confused. And Brent doesn’t offer any magic solutions. So it’s all on Jessica to sort out. She’ll have to fight for herself and what she wants.
On paper, Jessica Drummond might not look like a captivating figure. If I’d been the casting director, I might have given it to a simp like June Allyson. But then, I’d never have wanted to see the movie. So thank goodness for Stanwyck, who unearths both the sensitivity and the strength in this ordinary woman. Stanwyck won’t let ordinary mean boring. In her hands, “ordinary” runs the gamut: failure, neuroses, sensuality, bravery. And it should. In the real world, “good girls” don’t have it so easy. But too often, sweetie-pie performances drain the life out of screen mothers, housewives, and assorted other “good girls.” We need broads like Stanwyck giving such women vigor and nuance, reminding us that ordinary women can be captivating and heroic. Especially when, like Jessica Drummond, they’re willing to trudge through the painful repercussions of choosing against the grain.