Richard Corliss's profile of John Travolta in the July 30 begins with Travolta talking about old Hollywood stars and his presenting an honorary Oscar to Barbara Stanwyck in 1982.
"If you'd met Stanwyck," he explains, "she would have crushed you with her ability to adore and adorn you, just like a Southern belle." .... "Oh, you came here to give me my Oscar!" he whispers in a dewy approximation of Stanwyck's purr to Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve." ... He says in his own voice, "And I'm standing here thinking she's an 80-year-old woman, and I am captivated."
Well, yeah. It was Barbara Stanwyck ...
To be sure, Stanwyck, who died in 1990, was just in her mid-seventies when she vamped Travolta. But captivating men at an advanced age was probably no trick for her. After all, she had been a siren onscreen for years. And she did it with looks that were not movie-star conventional -- the nose was especially prominent in profile -- but with a style that projected enormous confidence and sexiness; "The Lady Eve" was not the only movie where one of her leading men never knew what hit him.
That's easy to forget if you know Stanwyck only from the occasional still photo, or for late-career roles like TV's "The Big Valley." But I'm going to recommend that you go back to "The Lady Eve," Preston Sturges's arch comedy, where she plays a con artist on the prowl. Fonda is her prey, but also her toy. There's no question who's going to call the shots even when the movie has ended.
Then revisit "Meet John Doe"; it's thought of as a Gary Cooper movie, or a Frank Capra movie, but Stanwyck is the glue -- smart, cynical, alluring. If a man was trying to enlist Gary Cooper into her scheme, or even a less formidable woman, he doesn't buy in -- then, or when she talks him off the roof.
Then go to "Ball of Fire." It's a swell movie about an academic (Cooper) who, researching contemporary slang, falls in with a nightclub floozie with the wonderful name of Sugarpuss O'Shea. Yup, Stanwyck. So very, very good. Years later, they remade the movie with more music and called it "A Song Is Born." Much to recommend the remake, which starred Danny Kaye, but the leading lady doesn't measure up. Virginia Mayo knew how to play tough cookies, but she's not Stanwyck; even Mayo's character's name, Honey Swanson, is no match for Sugarpuss.
As Travolta learned.