King Vidor, 1937
Before the melodrama of a mother-daughter relationship begins, King Vidor's film sees the eponymous Stella, played by Barbara Stanwyck, fix her hair in a small kitchen mirror. She is young, poor, terribly pretty; a flower entombed in glass. She studies her face; eyes averted from the camera, though its presence is certainly felt and playfully acknowledged. In gazing at her beauty, and therein tempting the viewer to meet her gaze, she dangles the filmic representation of Stella as enfolded in the image of Stanwyck. Stella and Stanwyck siphon into one.
Starting with such a simple gesture of looking in a mirror, a gesture that yields a rare, steely moment of cinematic immortalisation, it becomes increasingly difficult to overstate how lucid Stanwyck's performance of Stella is. By lucid I refer to the impossibility of separating Stanwyck from Stella; Stella from Stanwyck. This is not simply because Stanwyck is so memorable as a performer, though she certainly is; she seeps through the veneer of fiction. Nor does this undermine her believability as an actor. But rather, because the film itself has much to do with the art of performance. Stella orients the narrative by performing various ideals of femininity before taking them to task. She begins as coquettish, starry, timid. During unexpected motherhood, and as if incarnating the very object of her affections, she becomes silly, petulant, naive. Later, in the hopes of protecting her daughter in what has been described by some to be a gesture of maternal self-sacrifice ― feigning exile to rid her daughter of an embarrassing mother ― she is perceptive, pragmatic, selfless.
Despite being only eleven years older than Anne Shirley, who plays her daughter, and much to the help of padding, numerous pairs of stockings, and filling her cheeks with cotton wool, Stanwyck goes far to emphasise Stella’s physical maturation. She shape-shifts from a woman self-aware and poised into one who is vulgar, a target of scrutiny. The montage of Stella transforming is all the more spectacular when one learns that Stanwyck actually bleached hair for the role; the first and only time in her career she opted for such authenticity. Indeed, ironically, playing Stella and therein undergoing one of the biggest physical transformations of her career renders Stanwyck hyper-visible beneath her character. It accentuates her virtuosity, no less her commitment, as a film star.
Stanwyck draws attention to herself as an actor by revealing the performance process in its variety; scene to scene, she looks, acts, and sounds strikingly different. The role of Stella is hers to sculpt; she traces the curvature of the character and liberates its nuance. Because of her nuance, Stella as a persona is not entirely legible ― her decisions and subjectivity are often ambivalent. This ambivalence recalls the same air of command Stella asserts stood in front of the kitchen mirror, toying with the slippage between Stella and Stanwyck. Multitudinous by design, she segues between various modes of performance as if auditioning for disparate roles. I can play it all!
Stanwyck as celebrity, film star, and Stella carries a reflexive opacity. Inside the film, she utilises her opacity by deceiving those around her into believing her departure to South America; she painfully realises that her absence propels her daughter into high society (confirmed by an appropriate marriage). Outside the film, relishing the fiction itself, Stanwyck adapts; she dresses up; she blooms. Stanwyck, as ever, with all her idiosyncrasies, certainly does not fade into her character. She unearths its possibilities; the cinematic spotlight is a luminous halo.
This reflexivity is best acknowledged by the film's ending. Amidst biblical rain, Stella peers into her daughter's wedding through a large window, remaining unseen. Her task of upwardly mobilising her daughter is complete. She wanders away, tearfully, triumphantly, from the window, itself a sort of looking glass, one pointed to a life she could never personally attain. Anonymous to those surrounding her on the dark street, she strides through rain and traffic and past the camera, as if slipping off set and out of shot. Our last image of Stella pulses with light before the film fades to black. It is a theatrical denouement of a near-perfect performance and its scintillating modulation; the birth of unfettered stardom.