Performance Review

Like the Axe Needs the Turkey: Barbara Stanwyck and The Lady Eve

As The Lady Eve turns 76, Anna McKibbin explores its singular star's defining ability to blur deception and desirability...

In Performance Review, writers go deep on the performances that continue to obsess or fascinate them years after a film's release. This time: Anna McKibbin on Barbara Stanwyck's legendary turn in the screwball classic The Lady Eve

In a 1990 interview, Katharine Hepburn described the way she engineered her amicable appeal through a veneer of ease, of silence, of the unthreatening feminine. “It is assumed that I can live my life without men, which is asinine,” she explained. “I have to be approved by men all the time to work, to buy things, whatever… I just do that smile, that Eleanor Roosevelt smile I mastered and I do what I want. Let them think they pushed me toward their truth.” The 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve toys with this idea, clearing the space for its star Barbara Stanwyck to explore notions of gender in carefully calculated degrees.

For Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve fell amidst a slew of movies centring on some kind of twisted deception. Jean Harrington was one of the many characters that asked Stanwyck to slip in and out of aliases, layers of deception unfolding – styled by the actress, adorning the character. Stanwyck’s best directors were able to accept that the camera was a cipher, catching her disguises, briefly containing her blend of precision and passion.

The Lady Eve tells the story of Jean Harrington, a woman determined to wield her feminine charm to deceive the wealthy Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). It came at the peak of Stanwyck’s career, a star that was enlivened by a hard-earned vigour after working her way up from obscurity. She seemed to channel this into a slew of fiery pre-Hays code protagonists and snuck this determined sexuality into her post-1930 career.

When we are first introduced to Jean, she unthinkingly proclaims: “Gee, I hope he’s rich,” mid-smile, swaying on the balls of her feet, loosely holding onto a half-eaten apple. And with this the film’s version of the mythic Eve is nimbly reconfigured – not regretful but unapologetic and certain, filled with an open childlike glee at the prospect of romantic trickery.

She always positions this cunning, silly self away from men’s’ adoring gazes, but the real Jean is never extinguished. The unexpected flatness of “I hope I’ll never be more unhappy than I am right now” conveys a deep well of unforeseen longing. Her independence can be traced through her shoulders, sat high, squared against her opponent, accentuated by a sequinned dress. Her certainty is obvious in her lean, body involuntarily lunging forward after every hidden jab. Her want is lurking in her eyes, self-assuredly hanging half-closed as she peers at the women circling a bewildered Charles.

Jean’s hand curls around a pocket mirror, lingering at the scenes taking place behind her. While looking, she is held in the centre of the frame, kept separate from the man she is observing. With this, Preston Sturges’ reminds us how men are unable or unwilling to intuit, to read women – no one assumes she is taking anything in. She is insulated from their inquiring glances, and she wields this degree of separation to her advantage, quietly assessing. This observational tone is traded for a formulated spontaneity after meeting Charles. The audience knows that this flirtatious dynamism was wonderfully pre-scheduled, brilliantly crafted to appeal to an unsuspecting target.

Looking in Stanwyck's films is given real value, hefty and weighted; it is a charged and solid body that settles between our heroine and the object of her focus. While distinctly dissimilar in tone, the moment where Jean stares at Charles through her mirror is reminiscent of a scene from an earlier Stanwyck film. In Stella Dallas, the eponymous Stella is forced to stand in the rain, handkerchief clutched between her teeth, peering forlornly through a huge open window, watching her daughter get married. Both women are granted a degree of freedom but in turn they are also cursed to be seen in reflections, captured only through distorted glass. Both moments wield the real and physical to obstruct and expand. This separator is always present, either physically or socially, granting our protagonist the privacy necessary to change, switch, reform.

Indeed, throughout her career Stanwyck was always toying with the idea of hiding in plain sight, weighing the cost of deception at every turn. She embodied people who could calibrate their performance of femininity to suit an audience; Sugarpuss O’Shea literally dances around the professors in Ball of Fire, Lily Powers tricks her lovers in Baby Face, Phyllis Dietrichson cons her way around the men in Double Indemnity – ultimately, their ability to see leaves them perpetually unseen.

Her ease and desirability exist as a shield, allowing that which is potent and unsettling to simmer beneath the surface. Essentially, Jean’s character is fully discoverable in the line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” On Charles’ and the newly concocted Eve's wedding night, Stanwyck drums a distinct rhythm, building and piercing the conversation with a slew of shocking announcements, drawing him in before slipping the knife of revelation through his ribs. Through it all she remains wonderfully vacant and unbreakable, steadying herself against the waves of discomfort that roll off Charles, an off-kilter smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

In real life, actresses of this era were asked to make sacrifices with every professional manoeuvre. Studios in the 40s and 50s maintained a kind of overreach that carefully cultivated a roster of stars and tracked their movements. Stanwyck refused to sign on to a single studio. Instead, she carved out a new, freelance path for herself.

Her resistance against the star-making apparatus that had swallowed her peers bled into the characters she played – women who were armed with shortcuts, ways to sidestep the obstacles that littered their paths. Stanwyck might have thought that cultivating this self-sufficient oversight would grant her a longevity not offered to many middle-aged actresses, when in reality she was still left stranded in Hollywood's machinations. Even these fictional women are also rooted in an inescapable reality, ultimately subscribing to the male approval that was in place and ending the film happily ever after with the men they once tried to swindle. Many of them, like Stanwyck, had to sacrifice a degree of autonomy, of self-satisfaction, to please their immediate audience and surrender to the overarching systems that hung threateningly overhead, that “Eleanor Roosevelt smile” forever plastered on their faces.

For Stanwyck to convincingly capture these duplicitous women she had to convey something more fundamental, more human, a through line that would connect the fragments of performance. The force with which Jean throws herself onto the bed after Charles’ unceremoniously breaks their engagement is in conversation with the next scene where she is spotted, serene and still, swallowed by a fur coat. Her harried energy is reshaped, less all-consuming and newly directed, feeding Harrington’s need for independence. Rather than letting these two versions cancel each other out, Stanwyck allows them to inform one another through her physical presence. This was her brilliance. Ironically, for someone who tended to play deceitful women, there was always a thrilling honesty in the way she embodied them.

The Lady Eve is available on various streaming services.

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