Movie Stars: Stanwyck, Barbara–Appreciation

“Barbara Stanwyck is the most professional actress I have worked with in Hollywood”–Billy Wilder (writer of Ball of Fire, director Double Indemnity)

“Stanwyck’s range is limitless, and she has no mannerisms”–Preston Sturges (director, The Lady Eve)

I met Barbara Stanwyck only once, in 1981, in New York City, while she was honored with the Career Achievement Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

I was in a state of awe the entire time since she was one of my all-time favorite actresses. What has always impressed me the most about Stanwyck was her pragmatic, down-to-earth approach to her career–and life.

One of the first observations she made was: “You have to know when you have had your place in the sun. I feel sorry for an actor who doesn’t understand this basic fact.” That was said right after she had appeared in an episode in the popular TV show, “Charlie’s Angels.”

In a Hollywood career spanning close to four decades, Stanwyck made about 80 features, in which she proved herself to be equally at ease with both comedy and drama in a broad range of roles.  Her extraordinary diversity was manifest in comedies, melodramas, noir, and Westerns.

However, she became closely associated with her characterization as an aggressive, take-charge, hard-as-nails dame, as was evident in one of her best performances, as the acidic and manipulative femme fatale, in Billy Wilder’s darker than noir “Double Indemnity” (1944).

Stanwyck had been nominated but had never won four times for a legit, competitive Oscar. (See below).

Social Background

Stanwyck was born on July 16, 1907 as Ruby Catherine Stevens in New York City to Catherine Ann McPhee, a Canadian immigrant, and Byron E. Stevens, an American. She was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and in later years could never get rid of her Brooklynese accent.

Her mother died when she was four (she was pushed off a moving subway by a drunk), not long before her father had abandoned the family. She was raised in foster homes and by an elder sister. Stanwyck began working at age 13, and was a fashion model and a Broadway chorus girl by the age of 15.

In 1926, Stanwyck began performing at the Hudson Theatre in the drama “The Noose,” which became one of the biggest hits of the season. She co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman, with whom she began a romantic relationship. The relationship ended tragically, when in 1928 Cherryman died at the age of 30 of poisoning while vacationing in France.

Stanwyck’s performance in “The Noose” earned rave reviews, and she was summoned to Hollywood by producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film “Broadway Nights,” in which she was cast as a fan dancer. The role marked Stanwyck’s first film appearance.

In 1926, a friend introduced Stanwyck (then known under her original name) to Willard Mack who was casting his play The Noose. Asked to audition, she was cast on the spot. Willard thought a great deal of the actress and believed that to change her image she needed a first class name, one that would stand out. He happened to notice a playbill for a play then running called Barbara Frietchie in which an actress named Joan Stanwyck appeared. He used this to come up with “Barbara Stanwyck” as Ruby’s new stage name. She was an instant hit and he even re-wrote the script to give her a bigger part.

Stanwyck starred in almost a hundred films during her career and received four Oscar nominations, all in the lead category, for “Stella Dallas” (1937), “Ball of Fire” (1941), “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948). She received an Academy Honorary Award “for superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting” in 1982.

The best year of her career was in 1941, when she gave back-to-back astonishing performances in “Meet John Doe,” “The Lady Eve,” and “Ball of Fire,” helmed by Hollywood’s best directors, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawks, respectively.

In 1944, Stanwyck was announced by the I.R.S. as the highest paid woman in the U.S., slightly ahead of Bette Davis.

Second Career: Television

When Stanwyck’s film career declined in 1957, she moved to television. Her 19611962 series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success but earned the star her first Emmy Award. The 19651969 western series The Big Valley made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy. Twenty years later, she earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. Her last starring role was in 1985, on the TV series The Colbys alongside Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beacham and Katharine Ross.

William Holden always credited her with saving his career when they had costarred together in the movie Golden Boy.  They remained lifelong friends and he paid tribute to her at the 1977 Oscar Show.  While presenting the Best Sound Oscar with Stanwyck, Holden paused for a moment to pay a special tribute to Stanwyck.

The Waltons producer, Earl Hamner Jr., wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing on the successful 1980s melodrama, Falcon Crest, which was a spin-off of The Vintage Years, but had turned down the role and gave it to Jane Wyman.

Stanwyck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street. In 1973, she was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1987, the American Film Institute awarded her a televised AFI Life Achievement Award.

Her first husband was actor Frank Fay, who she married on August 26, 1928. On December 5, 1932 they adopted a son, Dion, who was one month old (He and Stanwyck eventually became estranged). The marriage was troubled: Fay’s successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom rapidly. Some say that the Fay-Stanwyck marriage was the basis for “A Star is Born” (1937, first version). The couple divorced on December 30, 1935.

Stanwyck married MGM handsome actor Robert Taylor, who was younger by several years,  in 1939.  Jointly, the couple owned many acres of prime West Los Angeles property, including a large ranch and home in Mandeville Canyon of Brentwood.

Taylor had several affairs during their marriage, including MGM glamorous queens Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.  Stanwyck filed for divorce in 1950, when a starlet made her romance with Taylor public; the divorce was granted on February 21, 1951.

Stanwyck had never remarried, and she continued to collect alimony of 15 percent of Taylor’s salary until his death.

Stanwyck died in 1990, age 82.

Oscar Nominations

1937: Stella Dallas
1941: Ball of Fire
1944: Double Indemnity
1948: Sorry, Wrong Number

Oscar Context

In 1937, the Best Actress winner was Luise Rainer for “The Good Earth,” in 1941, Joan Fontaine for “Suspicion,” in 1944, Ingrid Bergman for “Gaslight,” and in 1948, Jane Wyman for “Johnny Belinda.”

In her acceptance speech as Oscar honoree in the 1982 Oscar show, Stanwyck could hardly fight back her tears, while praising her friend with whom she co-starred in 1939’s “Golden Boy,” William Holden; it was his first film. Holden had died only a few months earlier.  Stanwyck spoke to Holden, who she said had always wanted her to win the Oscar: “Tonight, my golden boy, you’ve got your wish!”