Barbara Stanwyck played dozens of gutsy women, but one of her most memorable performances is in the 1983 miniseries, The Thorn Birds. The controversial story features the ill-fated love affair between a Catholic priest, Father Ralph, and the neglected but gentle Meggie Cleary.
It’s set in the Australian outback, and sees its share of disasters and heartache over the multi-hour run, but the undisputed queen in the first two episodes is Stanwyck as the family matriarch, Mary Carson. The fierce, rebellious, opinionated, and jealous landowner has a possessive and lustful eye on the moralistic Father Ralph. She soon sees and envies his innocent fondness for Meggie, the daughter of her brother Paddy, who arrives with his family to help her out on the ranch. Paddy and his wife have an unloving relationship, because of her unwillingness to move on from a lost lover. As a result, she adores the son by that relationship, Frank, and ignores her daughter. Ralph takes pity on the child and becomes fond of her.
Rather than foster this innocent relationship, Mary sees its potential once Meggie matures into a beautiful young woman and sets out to “steal his soul.” As she reminds Ralph, in an emotionally charged scene in the sheep barn, every heaven needs a Satan. When Father Ralph warns her that in being so desperate to steal his soul, “you may lose your own,” she takes it as a challenge. Unlike him, she does not hide behind her false morality.
Mary, out of all the selfish and deceitful characters hiding behind their secrets, is the most honest, open, and straightforward. We see this early on when after two of her dogs get into a ferocious fight, she orders them shot. She is a deliberate foil against Ralph’s “appearance” of goodness, and disdains his attempts to conceal what he most through false platitudes. Ralph wants so much to be good, and… isn’t. He sacrifices the woman he loves to get a higher position in the Church (his sin is ambition; he confesses that he doesn’t know how to “stop wanting”). He betrays his vow of chastity by conducting a several-decade affair with Meggie and fathering their child. This allows Meggie to repeat her mother’s sin of favoring one child (because of its father) and ignoring another… just as her mother neglected her. Though he agonizes over these decisions every step of the way, he always makes the one that furthers his career within the Church.
Mary is his Satan, because she foresees the path he will take and gives it to him. She leaves everything in her will to the Church, knowing it will make him a Cardinal, his ultimate desire. But she also gives him a choice—to destroy this will, so Meggie and her family can inherit the enormous estate, and forsake his ambitions. This will mean forever remaining a backwater priest in the middle of nowhere. Mary knows he lacks the moral fiber to do this, so damns him. He accepts the property, takes the Cardinal’s hat, and cheats Paddy and his family out of their inheritance, just as she knew he would. Because she can see through his false piety. It does not exist.
Though the book is not explicit, and the miniseries only hints at it, Mary takes her own life—the ultimate foil in her master plan to destroy Ralph by giving him what he wants. She fulfills Ralph’s prophetic warning—in trying to take him down, she “loses her soul.” Mary is not a good Catholic, though she comes from an Irish family. Since she sees morality as a crutch, she probably does not believe in suicide leading to eternal damnation, but she knows Ralph believes it. She does it to take the power of death out of God’s hands into her own—a last act of defiance, and a way to control everything that happens in the aftermath. She could not have known how long she might live, whether she could keep her mental faculties intact enough to finish her plan the natural way, or what powers might intercede, so she defied Ralph and God and did what she wanted.
In her last scene, she demands Ralph kiss her as she wants to be kissed, not on the cheek or the forehead, but full on the lips, like a lover. He refuses. In a rare emotional breakdown, Mary shares her despair at getting old. It isn’t fair that when you get old, you still need and want, but no one wants you. Though stuck in an old, wrinkled, useless body, she shrieks, “I am still young!” I find this to be by far the most truthful and moving scene in the story. The heart and soul stays young while the body grows old. It is a painful thing to not only experience, but to watch happen in those you love. It brings me to tears each time, even though Mary is hell-bent on doing evil.
I also like how the author called her Mary, a name often associated with goodness, purity, and the divine, as the mother of Jesus. Instead, Mary Carson is exploiting, tormenting, and manipulating people. It makes you wonder if this fierce firebrand of a woman, who wanted to live her life like a man in the Australian outback (taking what she pleases), deliberately chose to become even more defiant, to go against her Catholic name.
Though Bette Davis campaigned for the role of Mary, it went to Barbara Stanwyck, whose mesmerizing and raw performance earned her an Emmy award for Best Actress. Not only is she chilling and moving as the “villain” that orchestrates the downfall of everyone (though they all make their own choices, just like the devil, she shows them the way), she has a vulnerability that transcends Mary’s toughness to show the broken, angry woman she is inside—furious she has to grow old, cannot have whatever she wants, and that she too must die. You can see pieces of the young Mary in her appearance—the gorgeous, charismatic, demanding woman she was in her youth. Barbara has such a remarkable presence and beauty, despite the aging makeup, I hope I look half as good when I’m in my seventies.
Many remember this series for its tragic love affair, or the message of the thorn bird that sings one beautiful song as it impales itself to death, but I will forever remember it for the unbeatable, unflappable, and fierce Mary Carson, who remained defiant to the very end. Much, I suspect, like Barbara Stanwyck.
I wrote this as part of The Queen of Sass: The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Please click the below image to read more entries.