People who, like me, grew up in the 80s, were exposed to two very different TV experiences: the highly successful American evening soap operas which, on the trip over the pond to my native Spain, were relegated to the newly established, housewife-oriented daytime slot, on the one hand, and the Hollywood classics which, back then , still enjoyed primetime status, on the other.
This curious artificial synchrony provided for the simultaneous discovery of the work by great actors in two radically different media and delivered with a time difference of three or even four decades. Players like John Forsythe, Charlton Heston, Jane Wyman or Katharine Ross all found a shelter of professional survival in these glamorous serials of the 80s, and among them stood out one of golden Hollywood’s finest actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.
As the scheming matriarch in The Colbys, Dynasty’s unsuccessful spin-off, she gave what ultimately turned out to be her final performance. As the show’s biggest star (I never liked Charlton Heston and Katharine Ross was still too young) she was granted closing billing honours, and I distinctly remember her “and-Barbara-Stanwyck-as-Constance-Colby” weekly appearance in the starring credits. More than four decades had gone by since her finest performances let her dominate Hollywood’s female roles together with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at the end of the 1930s and in the early 1940s, but her image as an indomitable star remained intact in that opening sequence.
Her role as Constance Colby was not Stanwyck’s first exploration of TV territory. When her screen career, and Hollywood studio system itself, started to decline at the beginning of the 60s, she turned out to the new medium, which efficiently exploited her strong image in the Western series The Big Valley, a role that would define her television work until her death.
Prior to that, however, she had played in dozens of films with some of Hollywood’s best directors, like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. Her acting versatility allowed her to spread her roles across multiple genres. Her cynical, working-class image was perfect for her performances in fast-talking comedies like The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire (both 1941), but she equally shone in melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937) and the (for me mystifyingly unknown) The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) or, in the last part of her screen career, in Westerns like Forty Guns (1957). Her own troubled biography, full of survival efforts after her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent disappearance when she was 4, provided her with excellent base material for the best role of her life: as the social-climbing, survival-thirsty femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity. I know that Joan Crawford fans will shiver with this thought, but I always considered that she also would have made a fantastic Mildred Pierce or Vienna ‘Guitar’. She was nominated, and consistently snubbed, for 4 Academy Awards, but she had to wait until 1982 to receive a compensation in the form of a honorary Oscar. It was a deserved recognition for a woman with a reputation of consumate professionalism, admired and respected by directors and fellow actors, a strong personality in Hollywood’s golden era and, above all, an incomparable actress.
Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, playing this month at Brussels CINEMATEK, January 18 at 6pm, has Stanwyck at her most earthy in the role of a chorus girl moving in with a bunch of eight dowdy professors as object of study of English slang for their future encyclopedia. Screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket made a delightful variation on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with Gary Cooper as the eighth handsome “little” man and Stanwyck as the foul-mouthed, floozy Snow White. Although Cinematek dedicates this month to Gary Cooper, it’s Stanwyck who steals the show everytime she swears or lifts a leg.
See you there on Jan 18, 6pm. Don’t miss it.