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Who was the most versatile actress from Hollywood's Golden Age?


danjw
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I have given this question a lot of thought over the years and after much serious contemplation I have reached a conclusion: Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck is the most versatile and I'm going to take this time to quikly prove it. She could have played most of Hepburn's roles (Maybe not as well but more than competently). "The Philadelphia Story", "Woman of the Year", "Keeper of the Flame". Yet Kate could never have done "Double Indemnity" She could have tackled Davis' "The Letter" but Bette wouldn't have a clue on how to handle "Lady of Burlesque." "Mildred Pierce," fugedda 'bout it, would have knocked it out of the park ("Stella Dallas?), but can you imagine Joan's heavy hand trying to balance the deicate comedy of "The Lady Eve? Claudette, Jean (Arthur and Harlow), Carole, Myrna, Rosalind, I love them all, I just believe Barbara Stanwyck was the most versatile. Only one celluloid crazed, movie mad man's opinion.

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Saying that Barbara Stanwyck was the most versatile actress from Hollywood's Golden Age is like saying that Babe Ruth was the leading home run hitter of the Prohibition era, that Secretariat was 1973's Horse of the Year, or that Robert Osborne is our favorite movie host. It's not just that it's true, it's that the second place actress is in Barry Goldwater or George McGovern territory.

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I know BS is the queen of this board. I like her well enough, but not as much as I like Davis or Hepburn or Loy or Russell or Harding or many of the other greats. But in terms of the subject of this thread, i.e. versatility, you can pick a film/role here and there that BS could have tackled as well as someone else, but she could never have played the range that Davis and some of the others did. She played certain types very well: Martha Ivers is Julia Treadway, etc.

 

My favorite BS film is The Lady Eve. She's great in that, but Hepburn could have played it as well. And the greatness of that particular film is really in the script and in the character performances: Coburn, Demerest, and especially Blore and Pallette.

 

So I like BS, but she's not even my favorite Brooklyn Blonde: Mae West wins that contest!

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Hepburn couldn't play working class women, or for that matter any women who weren't larger than (real) life. Russell couldn't do glamor and Crawford couldn't do comedy, and Davis couldn't do either. Lombard was mostly typecast to screwball. About the only type of role Stanwyck never tried was costume dramas, and AFAIC that's more to her credit than anything, as those movies as a group hold up about as well as a Prohibitionist platform. She was definitely wise to avoid them and stick to the real world in all of its many splendors.

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I agree, Dargo, Irene Dunne was one of the most versatile, with Davis and a few others.

 

Andy, I agree that Hepburn did not do the lower/working classes, but I still prefer her to Stanwyck. When Stanwyck played poorer women, she still seemed to be Martha Ivers/Julia Treadway. And of course Leona Stevenson in Sorry Wrong Number was merely Martha or Leona in bed with a telephone. And, earlier on, in those great scenes with BS's pimping father in Baby Face, BS is Martha and Julia in a dump.

 

 

 

 

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Andy, I agree that Hepburn did not do the lower/working classes, but I still prefer her to Stanwyck .

 

No problem with preferences, since that's purely subjective, but I thought this was about versatility. One of the few times Kate ever tried "slumming" was in Spitfire , with a result that was so comically inept that it was beyond embarrassment. Don't get me wrong, she's in my top ten list of favorite actresses, but her limited ability to transcend her own privileged background in her film roles is something I can't easily ignore. Every memorable character she portrayed was either from old wealth or was a professional of some sort, whereas Stanwyck was comfortable playing women from every strata of society.

 

When Stanwyck played poorer women, she still seemed to be Martha Ivers/Julia Treadway. And of course Leona Stevenson in Sorry Wrong Number was merely Martha or Leona in bed with a telephone. And, earlier on, in those great scenes with BS's pimping father in Baby Face, BS is Martha and Julia in a dump .

 

Even granting these rather curious interpretations of those roles, what about her magnificent portrayals in So Big or Stella Dallas ? How do Martha Ivers or Leona Stevenson fit into them?

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My Hepburn comment was an "aside." Haven't seen So Big. Stella Dallas is Lily Powers and Joan Gordon; one might say a hard-up Martha or Leona or Julia. And of course "Big Valley" fits right in, too. I don't get the subtlety that I get with Bette.

 

 

 

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>I agree that Hepburn did not do the lower/working classes...

 

Yes, and it just occurred to me that when it comes time to make a "biopic" of the life of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the only actor who could possibly do the role justice is Katharine Hepburn. No doubt she'd nail his effeminate quality cold.

 

After all, it's only a small step from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY's Tracy Lord to Romney.

 

I can see it now: the movie should be called Long Day's Journey into Mitt (although The Romney of Scarecrow Marsh also has a ring to it).

 

Too bad that the timing hasn't worked out, but perhaps this is one instance when digital technology may actually ride to the rescue and resurrect Hepburn for the role of a lifetime (even if it's past her lifetime).

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To me Stanwyck is the most versatile actress. Dunne could do drama and comedy but she doesn't compare to Stanwyck for other genres like Westerns or Film Noir.

 

I would also add Dietrich since she could dance, sing, do comedy and drama, but again, she wasn't as versatile as Babs.

 

Davis was very versatile in her dramas i.e. she did frump, she did historical, she did the party gal, the loyal wife, the not so loyal wife, etc..... but of course Davis didn't do much outside of drama.

 

 

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True. Dunne didnt do any noirs, but she did star in several westerns, including, Cimarron, one of the greatest ever made.......Dietrich was versatile, but she was handicapped by her glamorous persona (not saying she couldnt have gone beyond that, but she didnt want to.......)

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Claudette Colbert would be the lady of my choice because of her wide range of film genres:

 

 

 

 

 

It Happened One Night.......... oscar winning comedy

 

 

Drums along the Mohawk....... western (of sorts)

 

 

Cleopatra..............................Historical costume drama

 

 

war dramas, slapstick, Romance, action she did it all from 1927 until her final appearance on TV in 1987 she left us in 1996 at a youthful 92.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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>I have given this question a lot of thought over the years and after much serious contemplation I have reached a conclusion: Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck is the most versatile

 

I think you are right. I think she was the most versatile actress in Hollywood history.

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