It's been a while coming, but Barbara Stanwyck is currently winning a tug of war for status as my favorite actress, overcoming long-time titleholder Carole Lombard. This being Stanwyck's centennial year, and after having revisited wonders like Forty Guns, The Violent Men, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, Baby Face and the velvety sass of her Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (above) all fairly recently, the victory is all but a given. Time to start looking at some of the superb writing available about this great star and marvelous actress, and there’s no better place to begin than with Jim Emerson, who wrote this about Stanwyck last month in his post “Bow Down to Babs”:
“In both The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire -- two of her most dazzling and endearing comic performances, from the same year! -- Stanwyck acts as a leveling life-force, puncturing all pretensions and knocking her co-stars' bumbling intellectual noggins out of the hazy cerebral clouds. What she achieves is not unlike what a much ditzier, flakier, upper-crust screwball heroine, Katharine Hepburn, does for/to bespectacled paleontologist Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. But Stanwyck brings salvation from the streets rather than the penthouse. Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937) -- written by Sturges -- is a delightful working gal, but Stanwyck is far more streetwise. Tough, strong, and smart, but no less feminine than some of her screwball sisters, she has learned to survive in a cut-throat world, living by her wits. She's at her best when she's in control, and she usually is. In many of her most famous movies the unspoken truth of any given scene is that she knows exactly what she's doing -- until, perhaps, her emotions sneak up on her and overthrow her instincts, by unexpectedly allowing her to fall head-over-heels for her (relatively) naive and helpless male prey.”
David Hudson and GreenCine Daily point the way toward Terrence Rafferty’s ”The Infinite Variety of the Lady Stanwyck”, which highlights her 100th birthday in light of a brief career retrospective beginning Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music:
”There are only a few ways to be a movie star, and Barbara Stanwyck, Brooklyn-born 100 years ago, took the hardest and probably the best one: she kept the audience guessing. She wasn’t jaw-droppingly beautiful (though her eyes were lovely and her legs were famously good). She didn’t have an outsize, force-of-nature personality. And she wasn’t an instantly recognizable type — a vamp or girl next door or ‘career woman’ or high-society madcap, to name a few of the popular personae available to actresses of her era. She played versions of all those roles at one time or another, without getting stuck in any of them. You couldn’t tell who Barbara Stanwyck was just by looking at her; it took a little trouble to get to know her, and she had the ability — a star’s ability — to make millions of viewers believe she was worth the trouble.”
Finally, Anthony Lane at The New Yorker checks in with a piece that is fine and lengthy and as suitably reverent as Lane is ever apt to be. It’s called “Lady be Good”:
”Seventeen years after her death, there has been a shift in Stanwyck’s reputation. To addicts of old Hollywood, as to pining critics, no actress delivered a more accomplished body of work; to the general public, however, her name is fading into the past. All we have of Stanwyck is a collection of films—but what a collection—and thus the temptation to conflate the woman with her roles is overpowering. Think of a jockey riding multiple mounts in an afternoon and you have some idea of the Stanwyck who had four pictures released in 1941 and again in 1946. Like many stars, she was loaned out on contract from one stable to another, but she made the switches work to her advantage, so that neither Columbia nor Warner Bros., for instance, both of whom worked her hard in the early years, was able to fence her in. In later years, she negotiated short contracts with M-G-M, R.K.O., Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox. Nobody seemed to own her: not the studios, not her husbands, not Frank Capra or Preston Sturges, not Zeppo Marx, her agent in the thirties. She had self-possession, and that was ownership enough. Samuel Goldwyn tried for three other Sugarpusses—Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, and Carole Lombard—before settling on Stanwyck, yet the role now seems inconceivable in the hands of anyone else. That is the way with the brightest stars: as much by accident as by design, they pull toward them the scripts and directors most likely to enrich, even to mythologize, our sense of who they are. We feel as if we have some share in a great public secret. All in all, as Sugarpuss says, ‘Pretty good getting, for a gal that came up the hard way.’”
Barbara Stanwyck was born on July 16, 1907, and in between now and that day this year hopefully there will be one tribute after another, in hopes of celebrating this fascinating, tough and alluring actress’s career and counteracting what Lane sees as a fading of her star in the eyes of the general public. There’s lots more to read about Stanwyck than just these three fine pieces. Go ahead. Google “Barbara Stanwyck,” and let’s get started.