She is complex, layered, powerful, funny, trampy, heartfelt, and ultimately mysterious. You never get to the bottom of her. She never gives it all away. She holds something back. She holds THE thing back, whatever it is. And it is that one held-back thing, never defined, never spoken, never pinned down, that makes a truly great enduring actress.
Watch (and listen) to how she says the following line in Ball of Fire:
“I love him because he’s the kind of guy who gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!”
There’s a sadness in her eyes, a sadness that does not come from self-pity – but from self-awareness. He “gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk”. His very innocence shames her. Yet she loves him. She loves his innocence. And yet there’s that epithet at the end, “the jerk”! She’s got an edge. She’s feeling as mushy as she’s ever gonna feel, and that pisses her off. He doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk! And yet there’s something soft about her expression there, she’s realizing – to herself – that she loves the Professor. She is declaring herself. And it’s not generalized, or movie love … it’s based on him “getting drunk on a glass of buttermilk”. I know Stanwyck has done more dramatic scenes, more tear-drenched scenes, but to me – that small monologue near the end of Ball of Fire is my favorite.
It’s got so much in it, and yet I still can’t say exactly what.
She never gives it all up. Holds her cards to her chest, that dame. Marvelous.
As far as I’m concerned, she has no equal. To this day.
Happy 100th birthday.
More Barbara Stanwyck centennial posts:
The Shamus: And starring Miss Stanwyck (I love how he writes “she was a marvel at moxie”. Totally!)
Oh, and of course – this not-to-be-missed extravaganza by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker (they’ve embedded a clip from Ball of Fire, too!! Not the “buttermilk” one, but still!)