By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Today marks what would have been the 106th birthday of the legendarily versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, who left her indelible mark on nearly every genre known to film. With a career spanning nearly 60 years, Stanwyck’s versatility proved to stretch beyond the confines of film and in later years she became equally at home on the small screen, starring in such projects as The Big Valley and the TV movie The Thorn Birds, along with her own hit television series.
She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, to a lower class family with 4 older children. When Ruby was 2, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a trolley car, and her father subsequently abandoned the family to dig the Panama Canal. With her older sister Millie as her guardian, Ruby lived a chaotic and poverty-stricken childhood in a series of foster homes, from which she often tried to escape. Her only comfort was in her brother, Malcolm Byron (called “Bert”). Bert later became a sometime actor, a troubled soul who was supported both financially and emotionally by his sister throughout his life, a devoted repayment for the comfort he provided her in their difficult childhood.
Perhaps due to the chaotic nature of her childhood, Ruby was never a good student, and dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work as a package wrapper in a Brooklyn department store. After going through several different menial jobs, she finally landed a job as a chorus girl, taking after her sister Millie. She was spotted by the producer of a play called The Noose, and she was given a part in the play, under the new name of Barbara Stanwyck, and soon took another job in Burlesque. In later years, film actor Pat O’Brien, who had seen Stanwyck in Burlesque, recalled with sadness that “one of the greatest stage actresses of our time was embalmed in celluloid.” This is a testament to yet another dimension of Stanwyck’s versatility that would soon make itself apparent in motion pictures.
After marrying a volatile actor named Frank Fay, Stanwyck moved with her husband to Hollywood so that she could expand her horizons to film. She began in such small movies as Ladies of Leisure (1930), Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Shopworn (1932). From those early roles, one stands out–her magnificent performance in Baby Face (1932), which tells the story of a poor bartender’s daughter who escapes her life in a bar and moves to the big city, where she sleeps her way to the top. A monumental and risky film for its time, it stands out as one of Stanwyck’s best performances of her career, and was one of the main impetuses for the implementation of the Hays Code.
Stanwyck’s career quickly took off, and by the middle part of the decade, she was a bona fide star. She consistently made wise career choices, and hence one is hard pressed to find a Barbara Stanwyck movie that is not top notch. Though most of her roles in the 1930’s were dramatic, solidifying her reputation as a skilled dramatic star, the 1940’s saw her taking marvelous comedic parts, and with such films as Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, she proved to audiences that she was equally adept at comedy. She further expanded her horizons in 1944 when she accepted the role of murderous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir Double Indemnity, securing her reputation as a noir actress. Her 4 Academy Award nominations are indicative of her myriad skills–her first nomination was in 1937 for Stella Dallas (a drama), followed by Ball of Fire (1941, comedy), Double Indemnity (1944, noir), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, suspense).
From Ball of Fire.
Stanwyck was known in Hollywood as one of the most likable actresses in the business. She developed a close friendship with William Holden when they acted together in Holden’s first film, Golden Boy, and he credited her with truly building his career to what it became. They remained lifelong friends.
She never distinguished herself or held herself above anyone else on her sets–crew members recall that she knew all of their names as well as their children’s names, and frequently asked about them. Marilyn Monroe said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only member of Hollywood’s Golden Age who helped her and was kind to her. She was known as “Missy” to her friends and coworkers, and often her chairs on the set said “Missy” instead of the standard “Miss Stanwyck.”
Her personal life was rocky at best. An early relationship to Al Jolson ended in lifelong physical and psychological damage to Stanwyck, and her marriage to Frank Fay dissolved due to intense abuse. She married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and the marriage lasted until 1951, constituting arguably the longest relationship in her life. After her marriage to Robert Taylor, her film career began to decline and she turned to television with a series entitled The Barbara Stanwyck Show that lasted for 1 season. But television proved to be her forte in later years, with a starring role on The Big Valley and guest spots on numerous high ranking television shows in the 1960’s through 1980’s. Her role in The Thorn Birds earned her another Emmy, and proved to audience that after all these years, she still had it.
A smoker since the age of 9, Stanwyck’s health took a turn for the worse in the late 1980’s, and she died in 1990 from acute emphysema and congestive heart failure. She never won an Oscar, and has been called the greatest actress never to have done so. She was awarded an honorary statuette shortly before her death, and dedicated it to her lifelong friend William Holden.
Happy birthday, Missy!