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Iconic American actress celebrated in honor of her centennial

By Elizabeth Packer

May 14, 2007 9:01 pm

She starred in everything from screwball comedies to melodramas, with a few film noirs and Westerns scattered in between. Her career began in the era of silent films and thrived for decades. She even made the successful transition from movie star to the small screen.

Her name is Barbara Stanwyck. If she were still alive, she would be 100 years old.

To honor the centennial of one of Hollywood’s most respected actresses, the UCLA Film and Television Archive will showcase highlights of her career in its upcoming series, “A Lady To Talk About: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck,” which will run at the Billy Wilder Theater from May 18 through June 10.

But the Stanwyck commemoration will officially begin Wednesday with a tribute to Stanwyck, open to the public and hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Ellen Harrington, the academy’s director of exhibitions and special events, said the academy regularly pays tribute to important figures in film.

“Since 2007 is Barbara Stanwyck’s centennial, it seemed only natural to honor her extraordinary life and career,” she said.

The academy’s tribute to Stanwyck, who won an Honorary Oscar in 1981, will be a celebration featuring film clips and appearances by some of Stanwyck’s costars and friends.

“The academy’s tribute and the UCLA series (will) introduce Stanwyck to a new generation of moviegoers,” Harrington said.

Stanwyck is best remembered for the versatility and longevity of her career. In an era when most actors were tied to a studio, Stanwyck maintained her independence and was thus able to secure memorable roles in a variety of genres.

“Being a freelance actress gave her more control in choosing her parts,” said Emily Carman, a UCLA cinema and media studies doctoral student, who researched Stanwyck for her dissertation and worked with the archive’s programming division for the upcoming series.

“She was a savvy actress who was not a victim of the studio era. In 1944, she was the highest paid woman in the United States, and it was rare to be as successful as (that) without being tied to a studio.”

While she’s most famous for her role in “Double Indemnity” (screening May 26) as “a ruthless, icy blonde,” she was in no way typecast into that femme fatale role, according to Andrea Alsberg, cohead of the archive’s screenings and public program and curator for the Stanwyck series.

“(Stanwyck) ran the gamut of what women should be and what women are. She was a representation of what everybody wanted to see, which is timeless. There’s no difference between now and then of great women actresses,” Alsberg said.

This timelessness has kept Stanwyck’s films relevant and appealing to today’s audiences. As an actress often characterized as modern and independent, Stanwyck’s ability to play a variety of roles convincingly has endeared her to audiences over the years.

“Her range was extraordinary ““ she starred in more than 80 movies, ranging from romantic comedies to serious dramas, from Westerns to noirs,” Harrington said.

Even though the heyday of Stanwyck’s movie career was decades ago, her performances “”mdash; marked by her everyday woman appeal “”mdash; continue to resonate with contemporary audiences.

“She translates well to the audiences of these days because she projects the image of a woman most people can identify with,” Carman said.

“The only things that date her movies are the costumes and hairdos, not her portrayals,” according to film historian Robert Osborne, who will also be hosting the academy’s tribute.

The films being screened span a 20-year period of Stanwyck’s career, beginning in the 1930s and going into the 1950s. They represent the best of her work, according to Alsberg.

“All the films are memorable, and in terms of the variety of work, it shows really how versatile she was,” Alsberg said.

In putting together the series, Alsberg searched through all the Stanwyck films she could find in order to select the best prints to screen. Three of the films being shown ““ “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” (both screening on May 20) and “Double Indemnity” ““ were preserved by UCLA’s own archive.

The print of “Baby Face,” one of Stanwyck’s more controversial films, in which she plays a woman who sleeps her way to success, was procured from the Library of Congress Archives. This particular print contains several minutes of uncensored, previously unseen footage that have been edited back in, a rare version never shown during its original release in 1933 that today’s audiences would probably not have the opportunity to see elsewhere.

In total, 18 films will be screened.

“There is something for everybody, no matter what kind of film you like and or what period of film history you’re interested in,” Alsberg said.

Carman thinks the series is a great way for movie lovers to discover Stanwyck on the big screen, as her films were intended to be seen.

“Seeing her in a theater will allow people to get an idea of the original image she projected. It’s almost like getting a recreation of a historical experience,” she said.

She predicts that people unfamiliar with the Hollywood legend will be pleasantly surprised with the quality of Stanwyck’s acting.

“You will get drawn in and you will lose yourself in her performance,” Carman said. “She’s that good.”

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