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Barbara Stanwyck looking over her shoulder seductively
  • Barbara Stanwyck: Ball of Fire

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    Posted on: 03/03/2016

    “Acting is as important to me as eating and sleeping,” Barbara Stanwyck

    Both on screen and off, Stanwyck was as feisty and romantic, independent and humble. She was determined, she was a fighter. She could be anything a script called for on screen, and always embodied her characters with passion and humanity. Growing up an orphan in Brooklyn, Stanwyck danced with the Ziegfeld Follies as a teenager and became an acknowledged star on Broadway when she moved to Hollywood. It was her husband’s career that took her to Hollywood, and it’s testament to her unique talent and work ethic that she independently became one of the hottest actors in town.

    On screen, she could wisecrack with the best of them, she was a skilled comedienne, she brought the pizzazz of the Follies to even her more sober roles, and across an expansive career she consistently impresses with her authenticity.

    During the 1940s, she had the distinction of being not only the highest paid woman in Hollywood, but the highest paid in the United States. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including for Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Stanwyck was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1982, along with many other recognitions by the highest bodies in the American film industry. About time!

    Throughout her prolific early screen career, during which she proved herself one of the most confident and sexually alluring stars, Stanwyck’s professionalism meant that she could adapt to many types of roles as the industry climate changed.

    In fact, even in early roles like So Big! (William Wellman, 1932), Stanwyck showed her range, ageing decades in only eighty minutes. (A decade later, at only 35, she would age to 100 in Wellman’s The Great Man’s Lady.) Night Nurse (Wellman, 1931) is one of her many pre-Code highlights, and stands out because, amongst other things, seeing her and Joan Blondell on the same screen is an undeniable treat.

    She made waves in three Frank Capra pre-Codes, Ladies of Leisure (1930), The Miracle Woman (1931), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), and then a decade later in Meet John Doe (1941), her sassy reporter saves the day like no one else could. This was also the year she bookended with films by masters Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve) and Howard Hawks (Ball of Fire), and became the reigning queen of refined comedy in Hollywood.

    Watching her many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers, and Westerns, it becomes clear that the key to Stanwyck’s performances was control; even in moments of spontaneous intensity, her command of emotional expression was supreme. In Stella Dallas, this quality is perfectly, painfully suited to the role, and the film became her magnum opus — if, that is, only one must be claimed for her.

    But when it comes to Stanwyck, there are so many surprises and subtleties that it’s infinitely rewarding to embrace everything. She could be a seductress, a screwball — or both at once —  a virago, a murderer (Billy Wilder “taught me to kill,” she said), but she gave even her fiercest characters a warmth and vulnerability.

    This is evident in Double Indemnity, where she’s icy and rotten to the core, and even in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), where she’s more so. If the depth is not immediately apparent, it’s a testament to the strength of her acting, her refusal to resort to predictable traits or broad actions. Her performances, then, do reward multiple viewings. She is one actor whose smallest movement could convey meaning across great distances, whose gestures and glances were integral to each emotion.

    It’s a shame that there are only six films in this retrospective, as there’s no way that they can offer the breadth of her career. This season should be seen as only a starting point — there’s definitely a shift in her performance style after she turns forty in 1947. So even if you’ve seen these films before, it’s worth seeing them again.

    Stanwyck is a fast talker, she talks rough, and she doesn’t mess around, on screen or off. Speaking of her younger years, trying to work her way through poverty, Stanwyck said, “I just wanted to survive and eat and have a nice coat.” She’s smart, fabulous, irresistible, and at the end of the day, she’s a lot of fun. She’s fashionable and a feminist. And she was charming; rumour has it that Frank Capra and Henry Fonda, whose work features in this program, both wanted to marry her. It’s easy to see why. She kept her private life rather private, but the cinema is a perfect place to keep her sparkling screen image alive.

    - Eloise Ross is a writer and teacher, as well as President and program coordinator at the Melbourne Cinémathèque

    Barbara Stanwyck: Ball of Fire screens in the Melbourne Cinémathèque program from 9 March until 23 March.

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