She snaps into focus at the mention of her name. You can see her clearly, the dark eyes set deep above plump planes of cheekbone, the trim figure and regal profile, the gleaming downturned mouth that curls as easily into a sneer as a queer, saucy smile. You know who she is — sharp and self-sufficient, a tough cookie who for all her smarts and steel can’t keep her heart from tugging her into the traps she sets for others. Try to single out the definitive Barbara Stanwyck role, though, and things get a touch fuzzier. Is it the sweet tart of Ball of Fire? The ruthless femme fatale of Double Indemnity?The savvy go-getter of Meet John Doe?You might have your favorite, but for every great Stanwyck role, there’s another to match, and for every standout performance, there’s a movie around it that Stanwyck — unlike Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, or even Doe’s Gary Cooper — refuses to steal.

Barbara Stanwyck was still Ruby Stevens, a 19-year-old New York chorus girl, when she was cast by writer Willard Mack in his 1926 play, The Noose. After the show received poor preview notices, Ruby found her six lines rewritten into a crucial, climactic speech and, in something out of a backstage fantasia, was coached by Mack for a grueling 48 hours before her star-making debut. Depending on which story you believe, Mack also bestowed her with her stage name; according to Stanwyck, he was the man who taught her not only how to act, but how to be part of a cast, to blend in with the other players for the good of the show. It was a lesson she took to heart, and to Hollywood three years later.

Ruby Stevens was only 2 when her mother died after falling and hitting her head on a Brooklyn curbside; soon after, her father left to work on the Panama Canal, never to be heard from again. She was shunted from friends to relatives and back, each move stiffening her upper lip and glazing her over with another coating of protective shell. The adult Stanwyck, a blunt talker and rigid right-winger, was all brisk, efficient business, with a survivor’s compulsion for losing herself in work and a loner’s unease at being the center of attention. She made 88 films over 38 years. The worst are tolerable for her presence in them, and if the best include some of Hollywood’s finest, it’s often only partly, if no less surely, because of her.

Ensemble action suited her fine (in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night, she even manages a believable sisterly bond with Marilyn Monroe). In The Lady Eve,a 1941 pinnacle for writer-director Preston Sturges, Stanwyck is sublime as a luscious high-seas gambler who beguiles Henry Fonda’s befuddled ale heir, then, when he loses faith, takes her revenge by posing as a British blue blood and bewitching him all over again. The role — smart-mouthed, wily and gorgeous — fits her as perfectly as her stunning Edith Head wardrobe. It would have been easy for the star, already into the second decade of her screen career, to take the film as her own. Instead, she engages with every actor — from Fonda to character ace Eric Blore, cast as her faux-noble partner in crime — as if she’s thrilled they’ve come to share the fun. More important, she delivers every line of Sturges’ script — a thing of light-comic beauty, as elegantly tuned as Shakespeare — as if she can’t believe her blessed good fortune.

With a few notable exceptions — the all-Stanwyck super-soaper Stella Dallas, the pre-Code firecracker Baby Face — Stanwyck shone brightest in pictures made by men who had creative agendas of their own and who knew how to play her as an instrument rather than set her off as a star. Howard Hawks gave Stanwyck one of her most visibly happy onscreen moments, as Ball of Fire’s showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea, swingin’ “Drum Boogie” in front of Gene Krupa’s band. Billy Wilder, co-scripter of Ball of Fire, and the deep-dread genius of Double Indemnity, swings the other way, bouncing the film’s carefully placed klieg lights off her glistening brittle edges. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which opens UCLA’s three-week centenary tribute to Stanwyck, Frank Capra, in love with the actress and unable to pry her away from her dead-weight first husband, submits her instead to an exotic imprisonment and perverse erotic attachment to a Chinese warlord. And Samuel Fuller, whose unhinged Western Forty Guns marked Stanwyck’s fourth-to-last big-screen appearance, sets her at the center of a brilliant and brutal elegy for glory days gone by. Stanwyck spent the decades between the death of her movie career and her death from cancer in 1990 working in television, bringing her steadfast persona to the small screen, a tough cookie to the end.

A LADY TO TALK ABOUT: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck | UCLA Film & Television Archive | Through June 10 |

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