STANWYCK, BARBARA (Ruby Katherine Stevens) (1907–1990) Actress
Perhaps the most versatile actress of Hollywood’s golden age, Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Katherine Stevens on July 16, 1907. She was raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother died in a streetcar accident when she was three, and her father left her to work on the Panama Canal when she was five. She subsequently lived sometimes in foster homes and sometimes with her older sister Mildred, who worked as a chorus girl. When Ruby was 15, she followed in Mildred’s footsteps, taking her first job as a dancer. After a stint with the Ziegfeld Follies, she found small parts in musical revues and plays, soon appearing under the stage name Barbara Stanwyck. She had her first lead in Burlesque (1928), and the next year she married vaudeville star Frank Fay. Together, they headed out to Hollywood.
Fay persuaded director Frank Capra to watch a screen test Stanwyck had made. Moved by her performance, Capra hired her for the starring role in Ladies of Leisure (1930) and cast her again in several other of his early features, including The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). As Stanwyck was emerging as an important new actress, her husband had trouble finding work and became alcoholic and abusive. They divorced in 1935. Stanwyck later claimed that the 1937 version of the film romance A Star Is Born was based on their relationship. Stanwyck’s second marriage, to actor Robert Taylor in 1939, also ended in divorce. In 1937 Stanwyck had an enormous success with Stella Dallas, a melodrama in which she played a working-class mother willing to make any sacrifice for her daughter. Although she was playing a woman far older than herself, she delivered a performance that was among her best and the one she later declared her favorite. It earned her the first of her four Oscar nominations. Having established herself as a star, Stanwyck proved her comedic skills in several classic screwball farces, including Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941) and Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1942). She also became one of the screen’s most memorable femme fatales. Her most acclaimed “bad girl” was Phyllis Dietrichson, the unhappy, manipulative, and homicidal wife in Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece Double Indemnity (1944). The year of its release, her salary was the highest of any woman in the United States.
Largely due to her versatility, Stanwyck continued to find memorable roles in film as she grew older, often working with the industry’s top directors. She was regarded by her coworkers as a consummate professional who was always on time and prepared. From her earliest days in movies, she made it a practice to memorize not only her own lines but those of every other actor as well. Once called “the most popular woman in Hollywood” by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Stanwyck was also known for her generosity toward younger performers. While appearing as a presenter alongside Stanwyck at the 1977 Academy Awards, actor William Holden told the crowd how she had fought to keep him from being fired from his first film, maintaining that he owed his career “to this lovely human being.”As Stanwyck found film roles harder to come by in the 1960s, she turned to television. She briefly hosted The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960–61) and had a substantial hit playing a western matriarch in The Big Valley (1965–69). She earned Emmy Awards for both series and was awarded a third for her performance in the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds. Stanwyck also was a regular on the nighttime soap opera The Colbys (1985–86). In 1982, Stanwyck was honored with a special Oscar celebrating her long and varied career. Eight years later, she died of a heart attack on January 20, 1990 at the age of 82.
Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Crown Publishers, 1974.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Double Indemnity (1944). Universal, VHS, 1998.
The Lady Eve (1941). Universal, VHS, 1998.
Stella Dallas (1937). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.
The Strange Love of Martha Ives (1946). Kino Video, VHS, 1998.