Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck at TIFF February 7 to April 4 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tough, smart, independent, serious and versatile, are not adjectives that come to mind thinking of one of Hollywood’s most important female stars. But Barbara Stanwyck was a powerhouse who could literally do it all. She was a phenom, who played an impressive range of characters from back alley harridan to a society matron to a professors’ favourite to a Wild West gunslinger and burlesque queen, mainstream comedy and the pulpiest noir. She was a “ball of fire” and a murderer, a sentimentalist and feminist.
In a time when women were gaining ground in Hollywood she was front row all the way, alongside fellow independents Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, dedicated to her work, too smart to be sidetracked, too successful to be ignored. Stanwyck looks were striking, but she was not beautiful or especially graceful. She was a salt of the earth type whose spirit and essence lit her from within in portrayals that have stood the test of time. She wasn’t a glamour queen, didn’t often appear in the tabloids or court publicity (“Attention embarrasses me.
I don’t like to be on display”), she was hardworking and conscientious, and left a legacy of serious integrity.
Her intelligence and forthrightness illuminate the work and that’s how we know her best, through her work.
Ruby Catherine Stevens was born in Brooklyn, her mother was killed when she was four and her father abandoned her and her siblings. They cared for each other until they were placed in foster homes. Later Ruby joined her older sister and became showgirls, landing in the Ziegfeld Follies.
A few years later, as Barbara Stanwyck, she Hollywood –bound where she would begin one of the most successful careers of any actress, at any time. She was one of the most versatile actresses Hollywood has ever seen and could virtually do it all, drama, melodrama, and comedy, screwball comedy, the works. Stanwyck made five films a year on average totalling 93, before finding success in television. By 1941 she was the highest paid woman in America. That’s some lady.
Politically conservative, popular with film crews (Marilyn Monroe, who worked with Stanwyck in Clash by Night said Stanwyck was the only member of Hollywood’s older generation who was kind to her), she was respected and admired within the industry she had a busy love life including two marriages and a four year secret affair with half-her-age Robert Wagner, Stanwyck lived life the way she wanted. And in Hollywood, that’s an accomplishment.
A little gossip. Stanwyck and her husband Frank Fay have long been rumoured as the couple portrayed in the Hollywood soap opera A Star is Born. They married, he helped her get a foot in the studio door, her success drove him to drink and they split.
Stanwyck was nominated for four Oscars but never won. I think that she made her work look so natural and easy that people didn’t think she wasn’t acting. She was however awarded an honorary Oscar in 1990 for her “superlative creativity and unique contributions” to film.
TIFF February 7 to April 4, TIFF presents Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck, 19 of Stanwyck’s best films, including archival 35mm prints, new digital restorations, some awesome noir, and great pre-code Hollywood films, under the direction of a formidable list of filmmakers, including, King Vidor’s Stella Dallas, 35mm archival prints, including Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, which earned her an Oscar nom, and a newly restored digital presentation of Billy Wilder’s noir thriller Double Indemnity.
Also included are:
• The hard-boiled pre-code Night Nurse by William Wellman
• Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face “with a full five minutes of sleaze restored”
• Lewis Milestone’s noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
• Anthony Mann’s wild noir-western-psychodrama The Furies
• Three Frank Capra films, The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Meet John Doe