What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of a blog-a-thon celebrating Barbara Stanwyck, But in all those great choices posed by the people participating, there was something sorely lacking.
“The Big Valley” was the only television western TV series built around a strong female character, and is the first non-variety show to do so with an established “A-list” star. Back in the day, doing television was considered a major step down for a “movie” star; this is why John Wayne refused to do “Gunsmoke” even though it had been written for him. That’s just one of the reasons why the single most outstanding characteristic of “The Big Valley” was the presence Barbara Stanwyck. Perhaps because it was a television series rather than a movie, nobody picked “The Big Valley” as a topic.
I just couldn’t let that stand.
As you will see, there’s a reason for that.
You can see all see all the other participants in this blog-a–thon here:
Television of the 1970s is directly responsible for the formation of my two loves which fuel this blog, sports and classic film. At first, that may seem an odd pairing, until you realize that it was “movie for a rained-out ball game” which brought me my first fix of John Wayne. My movie collection will tell you all about my love of a western, which helps to explain why “The Big Valley” was a favorite of mine.
Now, I’m not going to tell you “The Big Valley” is “great” television. From a sheer quality standpoint, it’s really just another of the flood of TV westerns which dominated the American small-screen in the 1960s. Frankly, in many ways, “The Big Valley” is rather derivative of “Bonanza” in the sense it features the exploits of mega-rich cattle barons in the post Civil War 19th-century
While “The Big Valley” isn’t the greatest TV western, it’s easily one of the most important.
The reason why is all about Barbara Stanwyck. When the creators of the show had “The Big Valley” on the drawing board, they knew once they had Stanwyck cast in the lead role, the show’s “draw” relied on the silver-screen star who at one point was the highest-paid woman in America. Because she had that kind of stroke, when Stanwyck refused to play “Victoria Barkley” as the “hothouse flower” typical of television at the time, the producers had a problem.
On the one hand, the show was set up for precisely that scenario, Stanwyck’s character is a widow who inherited the ranch empire from her departed husband, the family business is largely run by the three sons, leaving “Victoria Barkley” to be the glamorous figurehead; a role perfect for an aging “leading lady” type. But if they refused Stanwyck’s wishes, they wouldn’t have the star they needed to draw the viewers as was the intention.
Lo and behold, a bit of television history happens. “The Big Valley becomes the first network series with a strong woman as the lead character, and that character is subjected to as much “rough and tumble” stuff as any male lead.
This worked because Stanwyck had the chops to go from the elegant lady of the manor to a tough-as-a-cob cattle puncher who could hold her own with the saltiest cowhand. Some of the best episodes involve Stanwyck being locked away in a lunatic asylum to prevent her testifying as eyewitness at a murder trial, taken prisoner to replace a dead female convict, impersonating a thief in order to go undercover at a women’s prison. held hostage by a widower who believes she is the perfect doppelganger for his dead wife, and gets trapped in a cave during an earthquake.
That’s ground-breaking stuff considering that in 1965 on American television, women were far more often seen in the “June Cleaver” mold, let alone being given action-packed scripts which often touched on sensitive subjects long before it was fashionable to do so.
Another departure from the “Leave it to Beaver” mold was the handling of the character “Heath,” the illegitimate son sired by Victoria Barkley’s lake husband Tom. In 1965, the mere mention of children produced outside of wedlock was taboo to say the least, let alone the open admittance of their existence and Victoria’s referrals to Heath as ‘her son.”
The bottom line is that roles for women on television can realistically be viewed as “Before Stanwyck” and “After Stanwyck.” Don’t get me wrong, as long as there is television, there will always “sex kittens” and “sit-com moms,” but it was Barbara Stanwyck who blazed the trail for everything from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Xena: Warrior Princess.” She was able to effect such a change, because she had the range to play the femme fatale, a “tough as two-dollar steak” cattle rancher, or a screwball comedian. To one extent or the other, Stanwyck brought all those to the character of Victoria Barkley, which is why her iron will and force of personality permeated every scene. That’s because Barkley, as with all of Stanwyck’s greatest characters, were all hard as nails sweetened by having tasted the bitterness of life.
In other words, Stanwyck’s characters shared her sense of hard-won authenticity. Stanwyck herself summed it up best when she said “I’m a tough old broad from Brooklyn. Don’t try and make me into something I’m not.”
Why would anybody want to?
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
A sure sign of progress is that we are running out of “firsts.” But last month, the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers brought a rather unsung, yet important one when they hired Kelly Krauskopf as an assistant general manager. There have been other women in front-office positions in major sports leagues before, but they were on the “business” end of the franchise; Krauskopf was hired to be on the “talent on the roster” side.
For purposes of full disclosure, I’m not a “progress for progress’ sake” sort of guy. I’m a “merit” guy, which means I don’t give a damn which demographic boxes you can check off. All I care about is can you do the job or not? That means at some point, you need to have earned the chance to prove yourself.
There’s really no denying Krauskopf earned her shot. She had spent nearly two decades as an executive of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, including seventeen as president. With Krauskopf running the basketball operations, the Indiana Fever went from an expansion team to a perennial power in short order. They reached the playoffs 13 times including three WNBA Finals appearances and a WNBA championship in 2012.
Before that, in 1996, Krauskopf became the WNBA’s first Director of Basketball Operations. Krauskopf was also an adviser for the USA Basketball’s women’s national team, playing a significant role in helping to assemble three gold-medal winning teams in 2004, 2008, and 2012. From that rich professional experience, it’s easy to tell Krauskopf understands winning, and what it takes to build winners.
Think of it this way. You could fill a bus with women who arguably earned a shot at playing Victoria Barkley, but can you imagine anybody other than Barbara Stanwyck making that role as iconic as it became? Who can you even think of at the time who could have pulled it off? The producers of “The Big Valley” had to know they had the right person for the role of Victoria Barkley when Barbara Stanwyck told them how she was going to play it.
Likewise, the Indiana Pacers must have thought they found the right person when Krauskopf she told them “that building winning teams and elite level culture is not based on gender, it is based on people and processes.” Having been in management for over twenty years, I can tell you truer words were never spoken. The “right” people come in all shapes and sizes, and finding them isn’t easy. But if you don’t have the “right” people, you have nothing.
The Moral of The Story:
You can give anybody a shot at success, but only the “right” people bring it.
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