Sunday, January 16, 2011

Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire

Barbara Stanwyck received her second Best Actress nomination for playing Shugarpuss O'Shea in the comedy Ball of Fire. Nowadays, some consider Barbara to be the best actress who never won an Oscar, though I would argue with that statement. Although she was definitely extremely talented, I feel that Irene Dunne owns that title. I don't know how much chance Barbara had of winning, but I know that Olivia de Havilland voted for her. Ball of Fire must have been pretty loved back then, which gained some votes for Barbara.

I am a huge fan of Billy Wilder. I admire his quick wit so much and many of his movies are among my favorites. Although he did not direct this movie, he wrote its screenplay and it's obvious after the opening titles. Ball of fire is very entertaining, though I thought that it would feel very dated now. It's dated in a way, but it's still highly entertaining and extremely lovely. It's full of great lines and funny scenes. Gary Cooper is not among my favorite actors. Although I respect him, he never left me speechless. The same goes for his performance here: it's very proper, but nothing special.

As I just said, Barbara Stanwyck was really talented. Contrary to Greer Garson, Stanwyck was indeed very versatile. Although she was quite typecast on TV in the 70s and 80s, it wasn't the case in the 40s. She played a femme fatale in Double Indemnity, a possible murder victim in Sorry, Wrong Number and the self-sacrificing mother in Stella Dallas, just to mention only her Oscar-nominated works. In Ball of Fire, it's again a whole different character, the comic heroine. Even the name of Sugarpuss is extraordinary and really funny. Sugarpuss herself is truly a ball of fire, full of energy and lust, which makes Barbara the perfect choice for this part. Her easily recognisable voice, her strong presence really justifies this casting choice.

I love when great comedy performances are recognised by the Academy. In my opinion, comedy is really hard to do well, because if the lines are not delivered well enough, the whole work is ruined. If there's a false note in a drama performance, the rest of it might make up for it. However, in a comedy, you have nothing, but your lines and situations, which should be handled perfectly. And Barbara Stanwyck really nailed the comedy part of this performance. Although Sugarpuss doesn't get the best material (since it belongs to the other scientists), she's able to be very funny and memorable.

I consider Sugarpuss to be a character just like Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act. She's a thunderball, turning the life of a very quiet and peaceful community upside down, while annoying a conservative woman, who naturally doesn't approve her behavior. Barabara Stanwyck's comedy is, however much less hysterical than the one of Whoopi Goldberg. Under the circumstances of Babara's era, Sugarpuss wasn't what she could have been: a foul-mouthed, utterly adorable bad girl. And yet, Stanwyck was so memorable and delightful here.

I always keep marvelling at how well Stanwyk develops her characters, and how invisibly she goes from point A to B, therefore creating a very real character. Sugarpuss is very wild and cheeky in the beginning, and she's simply using these ultra-innocent man to basically run away. First she's only amused by their naive nature, but very soon, she becomes very fond of them, and doesn't want to let them down. Sugarpuss is an immoral woman, but Barbara showed well, that in a way she is an honest person. Yes, she uses these guys, but she doesn't make excuses when she could. She's always able to see the consequences of her action, and she's not afraid of talking back to anyone. She has this "I'm just like this, otherwise damn you" attitude, which could seem very distracting if you read about it, but it was very attractive for me on-screen. To tell the truth, I was seduced by her from the very beginning. Her scenes, her lines are also perfectly handled by Barbara, and I loved that she used these comic elements to underline certain attributes of this woman. For Barbara, comedy is only a tool to make Sugarpuss even more attracitve, and with me she succeeded.

Although the screentime is working against her, every times, when we see her, there's something great going on there. Even in her first shot when we only see her fingernails, we know that "yeah, this is gonna be great". I felt that, though I'm quite sure that Stanwyck's acting style is not for everyone. It's very divisive, since some may find her a bit artificial, but for me, her performances always work.

So, I can say that Barbara Stanwyck is just great as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire, and despite the fact that I did not expect that much from this performance and that the screentime was working against her, I was certainly really impressed by Barbara and wanted to see more of her. A great comedy performance.
I try not to get too carried away and I give her 4,5 Meryls, though I might change it to a 5 if she grows one me.

Any thoughts? Who should be the next one? (I will only read the comments on Saturday.


Anonymous said...

Ugh, didn't like her here at all.

Louis Morgan said...

I have not watched this yet, but she seems to be going very strong overall with your reviews.

Anonymous said...

She had two very good chances for the Oscar in 1941 with Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve; I liked her in Ball of Fire, but I think she was outstanding in The Lady Eve.