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The Work Will Speak for Itself: Barbara Stanwyck and Yaphet Kotto

A love letter to the special connection shared by Barbara Stanwyck and Yaphet Kotto as well as a look at six of their greatest films.
Dana Reinoos
Above: Bone (1972) / The Furies (1950)
In 1967, Barbara Stanwyck was looking back on a five-decade career, a feat few of her early Hollywood peers could match. Having spent much of the past decade working exclusively in television—she was an actress, she reasoned, so if movie scripts weren’t coming in, she would act on TV—she had found more failures than success. But by the late 60s, Stanwyck was finally where she wanted to be: the star of The Big Valley, an ABC Western that ran four seasons from 1965 - 1969. Stanwyck played matriarch Victoria Barkley on the series, which focused on the lives and loves of the millionaire Barkley ranching family.
Like many series of the time, The Big Valley had a constant stream of guest stars, but one young actor stood out to Stanwyck when he guested on the show as an ex-slave serving as convict labor on the Barkley ranch. The actor’s role on The Big Valley was more than the beginning of a fruitful career (he would go on to be cast in The Thomas Crown Affair the next year); it would signal the start of an unlikely mentorship, a passing of the torch from one stone-faced humanist to another.
In a 2003 interview with The Austin Chronicle, Yaphet Kotto divulged his surprising relationship with the Hollywood icon: “Barbara Stanwyck was my guru. I did Big Valley with her, and she took over my life. Brother, every move I made, she was following me.” Kotto, who passed away in March at age 81, had an idiosyncratic career full of intimidating tough guys, seemingly a world away from Stanwyck’s. But a look at Stanwyck’s Westerns alongside three early standout performances from Kotto’s distinctive career reveals the actors’ surprising harmony.
***
Barbara Stanwyck successfully modified her signature persona—the hard-luck, tough-as-nails dame (usually) with a heart of gold—to success in a variety of genres throughout the decades: pre-code dramas and comedies, screwball comedies, melodramas, and, starting in the 1950s, Westerns, where Stanwyck was suited both as an actress and a woman willing to do her own stunts (Stanwyck would later be inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame).
 In Anthony Mann’s 1950 The Furies, Stanwyck plays Vance Jeffords, daughter of cattle baron T.C. Jeffords, raised to be her father’s successor, ruthless in business and in life. Vance is a straight-shooter; she scoffs at her suitor-cum-enemy Rip Darrow when he’s surprised by her advances, asking him, “When you know what you want, why waste time?” But Vance’s certainty is an act based in insecurity. Vance mediates her own relationship with her father through other bodies; she rushes headlong into an emotionally masochistic relationship with Darrow to prove her strength, and, enraged at her father for taking up with another woman, launches scissors at her rival, maiming the woman’s face. Stanwyck’s own face in the moment changes from disbelief to unimaginable rage, then a brick wall slams back down as she sees the damage she has inflicted. If she can’t recognize pain, she won’t have to feel it, either.
 Five years later in Rudolph Mate’s The Violent Men, Stanwyck went from sexually available daughter to deep-voiced matron: Martha Wilkison, wife to ranch owner Edward G. Robinson and an image of matronly sexlessness until she is behind closed doors with Lew’s brother Cole (Brian Keith). The Violent Men bills Stanwyck second, but under-utilizes her in a small role as an unfaithful wife whose dalliance with her brother-in-law brings the film’s threads together in an apocalyptic whirlwind of violence. But Stanwyck brings multiple sides to the role: cold as ice to outsiders, loving wife and mother, and ambitious, reckless paramour, in her passion willing to sacrifice her family to gain control over her life and her ranch. Seeing Stanwyck chew scenery alongside Edward G. Robinson, another star working late into life, is a real treat.
Stanwyck’s final film of the fifties—and the one that marked her move to television since, after its release, she claimed she never received any more scripts—was Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, blandly retitled by Fox executives from Woman With a Whip. Stanwyck is Jessica Drummond, “Boss of Cochise County” and Snow White to the titular gang of gunfighters, hired to protect her ranch and position in town. Those goons are led by Jessica’s hellion brother Brockie, a drunken child of privilege whom Jessica loves deeply—probably too much. The thread that ties together Stanwyck’s Westerns is family: the complicated way she always feels tied to her past, no matter what the future might hold instead.
Forty Guns is Stanwyck at her most powerful; reminiscent of her pre-code classic Baby Face, Jessica uses men to get what she wants. Stanwyck spends the first part of the film trading racy repartee with Barry Sullivan, and while he doesn’t fall for it right away, she’s not deterred: this is a game that takes time. But eventually, the source of this ironic determination is revealed in a tender scene with Sullivan in a small shed, where Stanwyck quietly details the generational trauma embedded in its walls: her brother’s violent birth and mother’s death, and a snake attack in her youth that caused her father’s death. To Jessica, family means sacrifice, and at the end of the film (also changed by worried studio executives) sacrifices her dignity to leave with the only man she has left. It’s a happy ending, perhaps, but as Stanwyck runs to Sullivan’s wagon and jumps in, to be driven out of frame and largely out of film, there’s something very bitter in Jessica’s triumph.
*** 
While Stanwyck was being dragged behind a horse across the Western frontier—a stunt she would continue to perform into her sixties—a young Yaphet Kotto was getting his first taste of acting. After making waves in an all-Black Harlem production of Othello in 1960, Kotto made his film debut in a small role in 1964’s Nothing But a Man before moving to television for several years and meeting Stanwyck. Shortly after his role on The Big Valley, Kotto’s profile began rising, and by 1972, he was second-billed in the gritty mob drama-Blaxploitation-police mashup Across 110th Street (dir. Barry Shear). Kotto’s introduction in the film, and to his colleague Anthony Quinn, has to be repeated three times before it sinks into the old-school Captain’s head: “I’m Lieutenant Pope. I’m in charge here.” A statement of self-confident purpose and a command, both delivered by Kotto’s inscrutable face. Across 110th Street intercuts Pope’s investigation of a Harlem mob robbery crime with the mob’s own—often pointedly using the same techniques—and the thieves’ ill-fated attempts to get away with it; in all three groups, Black men are treated as subordinates, even, like Pope, when they’re in charge.
 Larry Cohen, who was looking to direct his first film, found a perfectly formidable performer in Kotto. Filmed in three weeks in and around Cohen’s home in Beverly Hills, Bone is a caustic class satire in which Kotto plays a mysterious stranger—called Bone by his drunken housewife hostage—who forces Bill (Andrew Duggan) to bring him money from the bank he manages, lest Bone do unthinkable things to Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten). Kotto lets the couple’s racist imaginations run away with them as his history and motivations remain impenetrable, even as Bernadette attempts to seduce him. As the enigmatic stranger in a bleach-stained shirt and purple corduroys, Kotto uses a Stanwyck staple combination of stone-like facial expression and quick, cutting wit to peel away Bill and Bernadette’s middle-class morals and reveal the rot underneath. In the final, surreal scene, Bill, Bernadette and Bone all converge in the sand dunes, Bill begging for his life and Bernadette telling Bone that she never needed him after all. A quick shot of the actual pain in Bone’s eyes—a particularly Stanwyck-ian use of a poignant crack in a stony facade—then, by the next shot, he’s disappeared for good.
 Kotto’s self-assured presence in Across 110th Street also caught the eye of Paul Schrader, who, for his own first directorial effort Blue Collar, cast him alongside two other actors known for holding their own: Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. The story goes that Schrader, knowing none of these actors would accept a supporting role, told each they were the star of the movie, causing tension on-set but ensuring all three actors were ready for their close-up. Kotto was immensely proud of his work on the film, telling Roger Ebert in 1978, “If I never make one more movie, I can tell myself I made Blue Collar.”
Kotto plays Smokey, in debt to loan sharks and looking for a way out, joins his coworkers in a plot to rob their union headquarters. Kotto holds his own against the dynamic Pryor, early on telling a funny story about skipping out on a mistaken police visit. When a clueless Ed Begley, Jr. asks, “Why didn’t you just explain the situation?” Kotto and Pryor dissolve into disbelieving laughs, a moment of Black solidarity in a career that often cast Kotto as the angry outsider. Smokey meets a tragic end in a workplace “accident,” a brutal scene in which Kotto, locked in a paint chamber filled with toxic fumes while work goes unawares around him, is killed by the daily tools of his job. He breaks the chamber’s glass window, but a moment too late, the robbery and the broken glass both meaningless triumphs, much like Jessica Drummond’s control over Cochise County in Forty Guns. Both actors give the audience a taste of real freedom—via ill-begotten union dollars or the solo ownership of the family ranch—before it is taken away, to let us consider what might have been.
*** 
In that 2003 interview, Yaphet Kotto went on to detail Barbara Stanwyck’s most enduring lesson to him from their time on The Big Valley:
Stanwyck would tell me, "Don't get a publicist. The work will speak for itself." And I used to wonder. I used to sit at home and watch people going on TV and being awarded and saluted and walking down carpets and going on late-night television shows. And I'd say, "Why don't I just get a press agent?" And then I'd hear that voice say, "Let the work speak for itself." But now … Everything has caught up with me, and the work is speaking for itself.
Above: Forty Guns (1957) / Blue Collar (1978)

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