Stany. Beautiful, ballsy, brainy and just plain brilliant, Barbara Stanwyck was the ultimate actor’s actor. Before there was such a thing as “method” acting, Stanwyck had already perfected the art of the lifelike performance. From Night Nurse to Double Indemnity, there is never a moment when Stany doesn’t own each and every frame of film she occupies. She was widely regarded as Hollywood’s consummate professional, a hard-working nose-to-the-grind career woman who, at the same time, shied away from words like ‘career’: “Career is too pompous a word,” Stanwyck once said. “It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid for what I love doing.”
For Brooklyn born Ruby Stevens, work was always a foremost part of her life. She spent most of her childhood (or lack thereof) in foster homes after losing her mother to a tragic accident after which she was subsequently abandoned by her father, which forced her to start working for herself at the age of 13. These turbulent formative years are almost certainly what equipped Stanwyck for a life spent exploring the deeply complex nature of human behavior. She entered the chorus at 15 and at 19 she was christened Barbara Stanwyck by the producer of a Broadway play who not only cast her but also rewrote her part to take advantage of her considerable talent.
Stany’s rise to film stardom was not a case of being just a pretty face—she had unquestionable talent as an actress. And while Stanwyck was a beautiful woman with an undeniable sensual presence, she was not the conventional Hollywood beauty. It was therefore her talent that caught the eye of a film producer and, with fellow Broadway actor and husband Frank Fay, brought her to Hollywood.
And while the marriage soon failed, her career did not. She signed on with Columbia after coming to national attention with Frank Capra’s, and with films like Ten Cents a Dance, Stanwyck began to solidly establish herself as an actress to be reckoned with.
Stanwyck’s films during the early-mid thirties often feature her as tough-skinned and even a bit tawdry working dames—roles that could easily be clichéd by lesser actresses in films that often went way over the top, but Stanwyck infuses biting emotion and complicated vulnerability that makes her screen presence in these films nothing short of magnetic. So even if we don’t believe the plot for even one New York minute, we believe Barbara right down to the bone. (The Forbidden Hollywood Collection features a few of these sassy pre-codes, particularly Baby Face, Night Nurse and The Purchase Price.)
Despite her tough-talking roles, she was already demonstrating an impressive emotional range, taking on the role of a leftist college student in Red Salute, Annie Oakley in the titular role, and an American missionary in The Bitter Tea of General Yen—Yen being an example of how early 30sHollywood was both riddled with unfortunate stereotype, while still audacious enough to flirt with a theme that borders on interracial love—two years before Mr. Hayes and his army of puritanical hypocrites over at the MPAA expressly banned such references from film.
By the mid thirties, Stanwyck was one of the most popular leading actresses in Hollywood. In 1937, Stany garnered her first Oscar nomination for her turn as Stella Dallas—King Vidor’s powerful weeper in which she plays a common-as-the-cold mother whose determination to give her daughter the best life possible moves her to make the ultimate sacrifice. She lost to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth. Shockingly, Stanwyck would never win a competitive Oscar despite being nominated 4 times. She would instead receive the Academy’s ‘we made an ass of ourselves please forgive us’ honorary award 40 years later.
The roles she was being offered simply got better and throughout the late thirties and forties Stanwyck starred in a slew of solid, unforgettable roles in what are now timeless films. From screwball (The Lady Eve, my personal Stany film) to noir (the iconic Double Indemnity) to social statements (Meet John Doe) and back again (Ball of Fire), Stanwyck’s emotional range was rivaled by few actors—male or female. As always, she brought her own searing emotion to each role, reaching deep into her soul and making even the simplest words take on a world of meaning. This ability is beautifully captured in Preston Sturges’ marvelous The Lady Eve when card shark Jean Harrington, whose plan was to bamboozle hapless millionaire Henry Fonda, tells him: “You see Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad. “ The camera is close on her as she says the last words … and we know exactly how much she loves him.
And then there was Robert. Taylor, that is. The two were paired in MGM’s very forgettable 1936 melodrama His Brother’s Life (Stanwyck by then had a non-exclusive contract with RKO), and while their romance was genuine, it was also partly the work of studio publicity. They started living together and three years later, they were married. Stanwyck was thoroughly taken with the handsome young leading man and, when asked about marrying a man 4 years her junior, Stany fired back with sparkling wit: “the boy’s got a lot to learn, and I’ve got a lot to teach.”
But it is little secret however that Taylor, whose affection for Barbara was less than hers for him, engaged in several extramarital affairs with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood—and the world—including Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. The marriage stumbled along through the 40s before she finally filed for divorce in 1950.
Stany never married again.
Once again, it was work that kept Stanwyck going with a string of low budget Westerns (notably 1955’s The Cattle Queen of Montana) and her own television program, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, for which she won an Emmy in 1960. She never stopped working, it seems, and even got an Emmy from a role in 1983’s classic miniseries The Thorn Birds. At the 50th Academy Awards in 1978, she was reunited with her old friend William Holden when the two appeared to present the award for best sound. (Fittingly, Holden noted, as the show was held on the 50th anniversary of the year of the talking picture.)
But Holden did something unexpected and first prefaced with this heartfelt thank you to Barbara that moved her to tears:
“Before Barbara and I present the next award, I’d like to say something. 39 years ago this month, we were working on a film together called Golden Boy. It wasn’t going well because I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being, and her understanding and her professional integrity and her encouragement and above all her generosity— I am here tonight.”
“Oh Bill,” she replied and buried herself into his embrace.
Four years later, the Academy would bestow Stanwyck with an honorary Academy award for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
Since Stanwyck’s passing on January 20, 1990, those words have only strengthened in their weight.Because Barbara Stanwyck not only ‘contributed’ to the art of screen acting, she defined what it meant to be an actor.