Ball of fire

In praise of Barbara Stanwyck

SINGULAR SIREN Sam Fuller, known for being one of the toughest mugs in Hollywood, wrote of casting Barbara Stanwyck as the matriarchal sexpot in his whacked-out 1957 western Forty Guns, "She was ready to do whatever you needed, even if it meant falling off her horse and being dragged along the ground." That Stanwyck was already 50 when she commanded this attention gives a sense of her fearsome robustness, something that held movie audiences in thrall for the better part of three decades.

A question inevitably surfaces in watching the greatest hits that dot the centennial celebration running through July at the Castro Theatre and the Pacific Film Archive: was there ever another American film actress who projected such a fully formed and coherent persona? In lesser films and masterpieces alike, Stanwyck is some kind of singularity: plot, direction, and supporting players all bend to her arching eyebrows. Her tragic Brooklyn childhood — mother dead in a freak accident when Stanwyck was four, father gone soon thereafter — may account for some of the intuition she brought to her roles, but in the end there's no simple accounting for the bewitching blend of worldliness and sincerity that can only be called Stanwyckian.

She didn't have the polished beauty of many of her peers, though I've always thought Stanwyck's face anticipated Hollywood's move from soft-focus cinematography (the dream visions of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich) to the angular crispness of the noir image (Stanwyck's lead in 1944's Double Indemnity being one of the defining femmes fatales, and terribly fun at that). More important, Stanwyck is the actress who best embodies the gift of talking pictures. The earliest film in the series, 1931's Night Nurse, was made only four years after the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, brought sound to screen, and already the Stanwyck heroine is cracking wise. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis essentially played as the silent stars had (with their faces, in close-up), but trying to imagine a Stanwyck performance without the sound — the hurried talk, sharp laugh, and many sighs indicating some combination of amusement, sorrow, and yearning — is a fool's errand.

Stanwyck used the increased range offered by this new technology to decode her complicated women. The exemplar here is The Lady Eve, the 1941 Preston Sturges screwball comedy that features Stanwyck's most virtuosic performance. It won't come as any surprise that her character, Jean Harrington, is a whip-smart dame, but the way she balances the put-on with pathos is astonishing. Stanwyck's trick was in playing the part — of the comedian, femme fatale, melodrama mother — with infectious relish while letting the audience in on the act and revealing its vulnerabilities. Despite the role's many faces, we never lose sight of the center: a woman who knows the rules of the game all too well. As for women, Stanwyck's character here reflects, "the best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not nearly as bad." There's a lifetime of regret and resolve in that pause. It's nothing that academic theories of subjectivity or identification can touch — we simply want to be with her as much as we can. (Max Goldberg)

THESPIAN EXTRAORDINARE In A Superficial Estimation (Hanuman), a small book that's also one of the greatest ever on the subject of film, the poet John Wieners writes about his godmother, Barbara Stanwyck. Other chapters detail Wieners's bond with his sister, Elizabeth Taylor, and with friends and relatives such as Dorothy Lamour and Lana Turner; as part of such an awesome imagined family tree, Stanwyck's godmother role is apt.

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