Director Barbara Kopple was born in the wealthy enclave of Scarsdale, New York, which Bloomberg rated as the third wealthiest town in America with a median family income of around $300,000. Scarsdale Public School district is cited as the wealthiest school district in the country. And yet Kopple has focused her documentary work often on the downtrodden and on labor unions and what could be described as left-of-center politics. In doing so, she has won two Academy Awards for her documentaries Harlan County, USA and American Dream. She won a Directors Guild of America Award for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Other documentaries include those about Woody Allen, Mike Tyson, and the Dixie Chicks. She has also made films about gun violence and mental illness. Her work takes a tough but patriotic look at what it means to be an American in a complicated and divided nation. In POV: Point of View magazine, which covers the art and business of documentary filmmaking, Pat Mullen wrote of her as this year’s Outstanding Achievement Retrospective recipient at the Hot Docs festival, “[Koppel] has always made films that encapsulate the contradictory greatness of the United States. Her roots in verité imbue her work with the power of observation. Kopple’s films give voice to Americans who are silenced by the establishment and the status quo. They invite audiences to find empathy by seeing the world from another’s perspective. Her films show that a nation isn’t defined by the person or party in power, but by the everyday people working together to ensure the American dream isn’t reserved for a lucky few.: Point of View magazine, which covers the business and art of documentary filmmaking, Pat Mullen wrote, “[Kopple] has always made films that encapsulate the contradictory greatness of the United States. Her roots in verité imbue her work with the power of observation. Kopple’s films give voice to Americans who are silenced by the establishment and the status quo. They invite audiences to find empathy by seeing the world from another’s perspective. Her films show that a nation isn’t defined by the person or party in power, but by the everyday people working together to ensure the American dream isn’t reserved for a lucky few.”
In 1999, Kopple made the documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck. I wish she had also made one called A Conversation with Barbara Stanwyck for, in many ways, Stanwyck, who died in 1990 at the age of 82, was the exact opposite of Kopple. Stanwyck was born dirt-poor in Brooklyn, New York, and orphaned by the age of 4.
M.G. Lord, a contributor to the premiere issue of sessumsMagazine.com last year, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in her review of volume one of Victoria Wilson’s two-volume biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1901-1940 that Stanwyck’s “path from chorus girl to movie star may not be especially fascinating or unique, but Wilson charts the actress’s more startling, less savory evolution: from a dirt-poor innocent into a hardened Republican, bitterly opposed to collective bargaining, and devoted to the ideology of her first husband, Frank Fay, an alcoholic tax evader who hated “Roosevelt, Communism, unions, and Jews.” The marriage only lasted seven years; his ideology corrupted her forever.
“Director Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant, also mentored Stanwyck on right-wing politics. But he is better known for coaching her on the finer points of film acting, arguably more subtle than performing on stage. He first worked with her on his 1930 film, Ladies of Leisure, a Pygmalion-inspired romp about an artist from a privileged background who falls for his model, a former hooker, only to have his snobbish family push the girl out of his life. Capra hated the insularity of the rich, the way ‘class and hypocrisy’ caused them as a group to oppress individuals. This dislike, however, didn’t make him sympathetic to the poor as a group. He despised groups — especially unions, and he violently loathed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would be elected president in 1932.
“Capra, Wilson posits, was infatuated with Stanwyck, which may have helped her career but also placed her in creepy company. According to a Wilson source, the director ‘adored’ Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and displayed a picture of him on his bedroom wall.
“You might think Stanwyck’s rough childhood would have made her sensitive to economic injustice and eager to help the disadvantaged. But it didn’t. Born to Byron and Kitty Stevens in 1907, Stanwyck — whose birth name was Ruby Stevens — was parentless by age four. In 1911, her mother, pregnant with a sixth child, fell from a Brooklyn trolley, after being kicked by a stumbling drunk. The mother miscarried, contracted blood poisoning, and died the next day. Stanwyck’s father, undone by the accident, ran off to dig the Panama Canal. This left Stanwyck and her six-year-old brother to drift between orphanages, relatives, and predators.
“At age 12, ‘Ruby’ underwent an abortion so badly botched that she could never again conceive a child. In lieu of high school, she fled to vaudeville, which offered some financial autonomy, but no respect. In 1923, while she was dancing in a chorus at the Shubert Theatre, singer Al Jolson hovered offstage and lunged at her when she finished her number. Enraged when she rebuffed him, he ripped open her costume and smashed his burning cigar against her breast. She couldn’t scream; there was a show going on. She endured until she blacked out.”
Barbara Stanwyck, who was nominated for four Oscars for her roles in Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number, was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1982.
WHO SAID IT?
(1) “Just be truthful – and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
(2) “Career is too pompous a word. It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid for doing what I love doing.”
(3) “I never have an agenda before I start making a film.”
(4) “Attention embarrasses me. I don’t like to be on display.”
(5) “I think I still have that same drive and determination, the same curiosity and passion for filmmaking that I did when I first started. Every film brings with it unique challenges and experiences, and I approach every one with the same enthusiasm.”
(6) “I’ve always been interested in how people think, how they react to challenges in their lives – what makes people tick. I’ve also always been passionate about social issues and causes, and I wanted to make films that addressed important issues in very human terms.”
(7) “Not be cliché, but I love making films about people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, no matter what happens. …. So many of the films that I’ve done are about perseverance.”
(8) “Egotism – usually just a case of mistaken nonentity.”
(9) “Every project brings with it surprises and unexpected turns. We never really know what’s around the corner when we’re filming–what turn a story will take, what a character will do or say to surprise us, how the events in the world will impact our story.”
(10) “When people ask me what skill they should have for this business, I say to learn as much as he or she can about camera, about sound, about editing, so that nobody can tell you that something can’t be done. And to be open … …just go with it.”
(11) “I had parents who did everything they could for me, and gave me a real sense of self so I could take risks. And I decided that I really wanted to do films that were so far from what I understood and what I knew to sort of bring me closer and make me able to communicate.”
(12) “Some kids are born with bad blood just like horses. When a parent has done everything possible, the only solution is to save yourself.”
(13) “Lots of times it was very depressing. I’d come home and the electricity and the phone would be off. I couldn’t afford anything.”
(14) “I’m a tough old broad from Brooklyn. Don’t try to make me into something I’m not. If you want someone to tiptoe down the Barkley staircase in crinoline and politely ask where the cattle went, get another girl.”
(15) “My advice is to follow your story where it takes you, put your foot into any door that tries to close on you, and find creative ways to disarm anyone who wants to stand in your way.”
(16) “Life has a way of taking you with it and you just have to be flexible enough to go along.”
(17) “Don’t expect the man you love to be a combination of Mussolini, Gable, Lindbergh, King Edward Eighth or a Robert Taylor. If you do, you’re riding for a fall. … All men are human, mortals and if they do exhibit a few godlike traits that’s velvet.”
(18) “We can’t design our world and we can’t design who we are as people.”
(19) “I’m not a yesterday’s woman. I’m a tomorrow’s woman.”
(20) “Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don’t care what happened before. I don’t even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing – I’ll take it in those fifteen minutes.”
(1) Stanwyck, (2) Stanwyck, (3) Kopple, (4) Stanwyck, (5) Kopple, (6) Kopple, (7) Kopple, (8) Stanwyck, (9) Kopple, (10) Kopple, (11) Kopple, (12) Stanwyck, (13) Kopple, (14) Stanwyck, (15) Kopple, (16) Kopple, (17) Stanwyck, (18) Kopple, (19) Stanwyck, (20) Stanwyck