Actress complete like few others, Barbara Stanwyck was a practical woman, with a strange humility in a Hollywood full of appearances and bragging, and her work transpires that practicality. Her disarming ease to perform any genre of films, allowed her to be one of the few actresses who could confidently face the dialogues of great writers and scriptwriters of the time such as Raymond Chandler or Preston Sturges himself; performing those brilliant lines should never have been easy, how many actresses in today’s star system would be capable of it? Stanwyck made the most complex situations and dialogues her own, Jim Emerson wrote about her: ‘When she took a notebook, a stethoscope, a microphone, a gun, or the reins of a horse, she was one of the few actresses of her time who convinced you that she really knew how to use it.’
Barbara Stanwyck starred in a total of 88 films, in a life that she managed to keep away from sensationalism, riding on a stardom that she carried without problems, perhaps due to her humble origins. Barbara never forgot who she was and where she came from; her good relationship with the various film crews she worked with was well known, from electricians to directors who appreciated her proximity without prejudice of class. That humble root of Stanwyck began to form in Brooklyn, New York, where she spent her childhood under the name Ruby Stevens, the youngest of five siblings. She went through different jobs, became fond of reading noir novels where the femmes fatales she would later portray behaved like praying mantises with unsuspecting men, and became interested in the entertainment world until she began acting as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1928 she married the troubled actor Frank Fay, who tried to push the actress to the top, no matter who fell along the way. It is said that the script of “A Star Is Born,” the film that William A. Wellman would direct in 1937, was based on Barbara’s relationship with her husband.
The actress made her film debut with “Broadway Nights” (1927). In these early days, her main support will be the director Frank Capra, who will count on her for several of his films such as “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), “Forbidden Love” (1932), or the exotic and not very Capraesque “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (also from 1932). Capra knew what he had in his hands, he said of her, “I would have asked her to marry me,” and he knew how to define the actress’s natural strength and independence very accurately, “she has no sophistication, she doesn’t care about makeup, dresses or hairstyle. But this chorus girl could take your heart and smash it to pieces.”
In 1935, she finally divorces Frank Fay. She moves on to work for John Ford (“The Plough and the Stars” in 1936, a film with documentary footage mistreated in editing by the producers), Cecil B. DeMille (“Union Pacific” in 1939), and the seminal “Stella Dallas” by King Vidor, which earned her her first Oscar nomination in 1937. The culmination of her work with Capra comes with “Meet John Doe” in 1941. That year, Barbara takes on Preston Sturges in the fantastic “The Lady Eve,” in which she seduces a distracted Henry Fonda as if she were the serpent in paradise to achieve her lucrative goals. She marries Robert Taylor in 1939, with whom she shares credits in several films. The marriage lasts for thirteen years. Taylor said that he was happy about the marriage because he was now asked to play tough roles instead of his usual handsome characters, as the producers wanted the husband to be up to his tough wife.
In the same year of her second marriage, Barbara coincides on the set of “Golden Boy” with actor William Holden, whom the studio wanted to fire as soon as possible. Barbara helps Holden and prevents his dismissal, something the actor will always be grateful for. Their friendship will last a lifetime, peppered with a supposed romance beyond a simple friendly relationship and the tremendous drinking problems Holden would have later on. In 1981, when Hollywood awarded Stanwyck an Oscar for her entire career, the actress had simple yet emotional words for Holden, who had died shortly before. On the podium, with the golden statue in her hand, she dedicates the Oscar to “my golden boy” (“Golden Boy” was the original title of “Golden Boy,” the film that allowed them to meet).
“Ball of Fire” (1941, Howard Hawks) is a unique comedy in which dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck more revved up than ever) manipulates a group of serious professors trying to write an encyclopedia about American slang. The noir side of her filmography is headed by Mrs. Dietrichson, who takes Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) to the same hell in “Double Indemnity” in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder. The ultimate femme fatale? Probably. Stanwyck’s Mrs. Dietrichson uses her bad seduction skills to force the insurer Neff to kill her husband so she can collect a double policy. They are both stalked by Neff’s boss played by a sagacious Edward G. Robinson. The couple’s plan goes awry, and the film culminates in Stanwyck pointing a gun at McMurray, shooting him once, injuring him but ultimately not daring to finish him off. A bad femme fatale… but not so bad. The actress receives another Oscar nomination for this excellent work.
In “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948, A. Litvak, and another nomination for the actress) and “Clash by Night” (1952, Fritz Lang), Stanwyck continues with her tough line of femme fatales. With “Forty Guns” in 1957, the actress will work with the gritty director Samuel Fuller, demonstrating her exceptional commitment at this stage of her career when, in one scene, the stuntmen who replaced her in risky sequences refuse to do their job because they consider the action too dangerous. Stanwyck offers without hesitation to film the scene herself and let herself be dragged by a horse, as required by the script.
The last third of her career shows us a television-focused Stanwyck, participating in series such as “The Thorn Birds” or “The Colbys” (does anyone remember the damn Colbys?).
In 1990, as a result of declining health over several years, Barbara died in a hospital bed while sleeping.