Sirk and the Figure of the Actress: All I Desire

Article excerpt

From the earliest days of the cinema, the figure of the actress has been one that has intrigued scriptwriters, directors, and performers alike. In part, this fascination derives from artists' self-reflexive pleasure in crafting works about the creative scene. Moreover, the subject of the actress has, traditionally, facilitated a study of the theatrical nature of existence, the "imitation of life," as it were. Finally, a focus on the female performer expedites the exploration of the status of woman in culture. For, as Molly Haskell notes (with rampant irony): "The actress merely extends the role-playing dimension of woman, emphasizing what she already is" (243). Among the canonical films that address this topic are such works as: Dangerous (1935), Dance Girl Dance (1940), The Velvet Touch (1948), All About Eve (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), The Star (1952), Torch Song (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Goddess (1958), The Girls (1969), Lumiere (1976), Veronika Voss (1982), Frances (1982), Postcards from the Edge (1990), High Heels (1991), and, of course, imitation of Life (1959). It is within this cinematic "sorority" (or subgenre melodramatic) that Douglas Sirk's All I Desire (1953) resides. He, himself, deemed the film a "pre-study of the actress in Imitation of Life" (Halliday, 89). Clearly, Sirk's "magnificent obsession" with the actress is tied to his impulse toward social critique. While, ordinarily (within the conventions of domestic melodrama), one can only hint at the duplicitous aspects of everyday life, a focus on the actress allows this issue to rise to the surface.

All I Desire takes place at the turn-of-the-century and concerns Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck), who has deserted her husband and three children some ten years back to seek a life on the stage. The film begins when she (now a vaudeville performer), receives a letter from her teen-age daughter asking her to return to Riverdale, Wisconsin to attend a school play in which the adolescent appears. Like her Biblical namesake, Naomi goes back home and confronts the complex legacy of her past.(1)

Given that the drama is set in the late Edwardian era, it is tempting to consider two short films of the period that deploy the character of the actress. Since Naomi skirts the edges of the burlesque world, we might examine a film set in that milieu--one that depicts a showgirl performing a strip tease--the most transgressive number for a woman to enact. From Showgirl to Burlesque Queen (1903), a "blue movie" of the period, presents a fully-dressed woman disrobing before the camera. While she begins to undress in full view, she soon moves behind a screen, where she discards her chemise. She then extends her arm intermittently (in a teasing manner) to grab pieces of clothing. She finally emerges in a soubrette outfit comprised of spangled blouse and shorts. Clearly (from a Victorian perspective), this film imagines female theatricality as entirely sexual--as poised on a slippery slope between stage and burlesque.

She Would Be an Actress (made in 1909 by the Sigmund Lubin Company of Philadelphia) depicts an actress of a more respectable kind (like Naomi, a music-hall performer), whose career choice disrupts her connubial universe. It portrays a married woman who leaves home to perform in a saloon against her husband's protestations. He, however, follows her there and, impersonating a waiter, surprises her, and forces her to return home. Several aspects of this film help to illuminate All I Desire. First of all, female acting is associated with excess, as is evident from the film's initial shot, which depicts the heroine declaiming and gesticulating as she reads a theater manual. Secondly, the actress is seen as an enemy of marriage, and as an emasculator of men. Before she runs away, her husband wears an apron and serves her dinner and, in order to succeed, she abandons her domestic responsibilities. …