If I had to choose just one favorite actress, it would have to be Barbara Stanwyck. Equally adept at drama and comedy, and equally adept at playing a heroine or a villain, her career spanned 60 years. She made 85 films in 38 years, then turned to television in 1957. She was nominated for an Oscar four times, and won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. This is an actress who could do it all, and she did it well. So, for today’s Cinema Sunday, let’s watch some Stanwyck. These are my four favorites:
“The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946): This film exemplifies one of the qualities that I admire the most about Stanwyck as an actress. She has the remarkable ability to play an essentially unsympathetic character in such a way that you feel sympathy for her vulnerability. Not many actresses can do this, but Stanwyck excels at it.
The film begins in a 1928 Pennsylvania factory town called Iverstown. Martha Ivers is a young, unloved orphan who longs to escape from the guardianship of her wealthy, domineering aunt. On a rainy night, Martha is caught trying to run away with her friend, the street-wise Sam Masterson, of whom her aunt disapproves. Martha is taken home, but later on that night, Sam comes to get Martha for another escape attempt. When her aunt hears Martha’s cat on the staircase, Sam hides. When Mrs. Ivers attacks the pet with her cane, Martha intervenes and accidentally kills the aunt. This is just the beginning of the web of lies that surrounds Martha and leads to her downfall.
Also starring Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas (in his film debut), this film is quite underrated, in my opinion. It is certainly not one of Stanwyck’s best known movies nor most celebrated, but is well worth the time spent watching it. Watching her play a strong but vulnerable woman is one of the best things about watching Barbara Stanwyck. She does it so well.
“The Lady Eve” (1941): This screwball comedy, directed by Preston Sturges, is the story of Jean Harrington, a con artist, who, along with her father (Charles Coburn) and his partner, tries to fleece a shy, naïve, rich snake expert named Charles Pike, well played by Henry Fonda. Jean falls hard for Pike, but when he discovers the truth about Jean and her father, Pike dumps her. And the fun begins.
This movie is hilarious, great fun to watch, and shows just how adept Stanwyck was at comedic roles, and again, how adept she was at playing multi dimensional characters. Although Jean is a con artist, she is a lovable one, and you root for her throughout the entire film. It is one of my favorite films of all time, and certainly my favorite of Stanwyck’s. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story, the New York Times named it as the best film of the year in their “10 Best Films of 1941” list, and in 1994, it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Well deserved honors. Stanwyck is GREAT in this!!
“Double Indemnity” (1944): This Oscar nominated film noir centers on Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who meets the sultry Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), the unhappily married femme fatale who plots with Neff to kill her husband. I won’t tell you any more, as to not ruin the film for you, but it is a great movie! This is film noir at its best, so if you’ve never seen noir, watch this movie. Watch this film even if you are familiar with noir. Watch it again and again. You will thank me later.
Watch it after “The Lady Eve”, and you will be struck by how versatile Stanwyck was. She could well play the essentially sweet but flawed Jean of “Lady Eve”, but was equally adept at playing the treacherous Phyllis, who seemed to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In spite of the character’s lack of good qualities, Stanwyck’s acting skill brought a depth to the character that a lesser actress could not have pulled off.
Starring also Edward G. Robinson, and directed by the great Billy Wilder, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (Best Motion Picture, Actress, Director, Writing, Cinematography, Sound and Music ) but lost every one of them. The Academy’s loss, I can assure you.
As a side note, I also have to say that Fred MacMurray was great in this movie as well. Normally known as playing affable nice guys, MacMurray excels as the weak, amoral Neff. It was his best film.
“Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948): Another example of film noir, this film tells the story of a woman who accidentally hears a murder being plotted over the phone, then gradually realizes that she is to be the victim. Stanwyck well plays Leona Stevenson, who is a spoiled, demanding, bedridden daughter of a millionaire. She is married to Henry (Burt Lancaster), a weak, social climber from the wrong side of the tracks. Again, you see how skillfully Stanwyck plays her character. You want to hate Leona, but Stanwyck plays her with just enough vulnerability that in the end, you feel sorry for her. Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but lost to Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda”.
It is a very suspenseful film, so if you’re the nervous type (or if you're confined to bed), don’t watch this alone at night.
Some other good Stanwyck that I've enjoyed: “Ball of Fire”, “Stella Dallas”, “The Two Mrs. Carrolls”, “Christmas in Connecticut”, “Meet John Doe”, “The File on Thelma Jordan”, and "Witness to Murder".
Who is your favorite actress, and why?
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