#28 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Born in Brooklyn in 1907, Barbara Stanwyck was orphaned at age four when her mother was knocked off a streetcar and killed and her father took off for a job digging the Panama Canal and never returned.
She was raised primarily by her eight-year-old sister Mildred and grew up in a series of what she called “impersonal” foster homes.
She didn’t like teachers or guardians telling her what to do. She understood early that if she worked hard and earned her own money she could call her own shots.
At fourteen she quit school and got a job in a Brooklyn department store. She would never again depend on anyone for financial support.
At fifteen she became a chorus girl. At twenty she had her first leading role on Broadway. At twenty-two she appeared in her first Hollywood film in a starring role.
She never looked back. And she called her own shots until the day she died.
Except, perhaps, for the seven years of her marriage to her first husband, Frank Fay. She’d had early success on Broadway, but Stanwyck was terribly shy, and sixteen years younger than her successful Broadway star husband.
Fay liked having an admiring protege for a wife, and for a time he did all he could to advance her career. Their fortunes reversed in Hollywood, as Stanwyck’s movie career soared while Fay’s never got off the ground.
Fay dealt with his jealousy by drinking and knocking his wife around. Stanwyck did all she could to save the marriage—including bankrolling several failed Frank Fay Broadway projects and adopting a child, but was left no choice but to divorce him in 1935.
One star fades, another is born.
Stanwyck and Fay’s marriage was widely rumored to be a source of inspiration for the often-remade 1937 film A Star Is Born.
Love had burned her once. It would burn her again.
* * *
In an extremely unusual move for the time, Barbara Stanwyck did not sign a long term contract with any studio. This allowed her to retain much more control over her roles than the average star of the era, and is why she was able to show such range and versatility in the characters she played.
But she had to forgo the security and comfort of the long term contract. MGM, especially, coddled their top contract stars. Louis B. Mayer fancied himself a father figure and the MGM stars his children. He managed their personal lives, kept embarrassing episodes out of the newspapers, and talked many of his children out of salary raises.
Stanwyck hadn’t had a father since she was four and didn’t need one now. She didn’t confuse colleagues with family. She’d clean up her own messes and negotiate her own salaries, thank you very much.
In 1944, the Treasure Department confirmed she earned more money than any other woman—not actress, but woman—in America.
(Though it must be said that she did consent to Louis B. Mayer’s insistence that she and Robert Taylor marry after a damaging article noted that she and Taylor lived next to one another and played house without having actually tied the knot. This same article sped along the marriage of one Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. But nothing in Stanwyck’s history suggests she would’ve married Robert Taylor if she really hadn’t wanted to.)
The other advantage of having a single studio backing your career?
Come Oscar time, studios campaigned hardest for their contract players. (Another freelancer of the era was Cary Grant, another Old Hollywood legend who never won an Oscar.)
* * *
In 1936, Robert Taylor starred with Loretta Young in Private Number. He was already a well-known heartthrob but still inexperienced enough that success was a novel thrill. He took his new girlfriend Barbara Stanwyck to see his name in lights atop a theater marquee.
“The trick is to keep it there,” she said. ^
Taylor and Stanwyck were married from 1939-1952. Stanwyck was very much in love with Taylor, and made some of her best movies during this period. Because Stanwyck and Taylor were so private, it is hard to know exactly what went wrong in their marriage, but Taylor reportedly had affairs with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner that deeply wounded Stanwyck. But the core of the matter was that Taylor wanted a wife who put him before her career and doted on him.
No matter that Robert Taylor was the love of her life—Stanwyck could never be that woman.
Love had burned her twice. She wouldn’t give it a third chance.
* * *
Life had left its marks on her, but she kept them covered up.
She was reticent with the press, believing that talking about real or perceived scandals only added fuel to the fire. She had few close friends, and except during her marriage to Robert Taylor, avoided most of the Hollywood social scene, preferring to stay home and read. She kept most people at arm’s length.
She never talked about her past, even to those closest to her.
She would only say that as a child what she longed for most was a warm coat.
She believed in the American dream. She had lived it—dragging her four-year-old self out of a Brooklyn gutter to the top of the Hollywood Hills.
She prized self-reliance above all else and never indulged in self-pity. She could be fiercely loyal, but she expected absolute loyalty in return. She was not one to sacrifice endlessly for others.
She fought hard for—and received—custody of her adopted son after her divorce from Frank Fay, but she had no model for motherhood. In an overzealous quest not to spoil him, she neglected and alienated him. She resented that he did not make the most of opportunities she never had at his age. Eventually she cast him off to a succession of boarding schools and they were irrevocably estranged by the time he was in his early twenties.
* * *
And yet the tales of her professionalism, humor, and generosity on set are legendary.
Without fail, she showed up on time and with the entire script memorized. She rarely flubbed a scene, or even missed a word. She didn’t second guess her hair and makeup people, and continually amazed them when she walked onto the set without even checking their work in a mirror. She stood around in fur coats in hundred degree heat instead of changing between scenes so that filming wouldn’t be slowed down if the director needed her in a shot. She often didn’t use stand-ins, knowing the cameraman’s work was easier without a body double. She lived to do her own stunts, many of which were quite dangerous.
Quote after quote from directors and fellow actors talk about how rare it was for someone who was such a star to be so unaffected, low drama, and cooperative on the set.
She had great affection for the crew, and knew the names of everyone down to the electricians and the prop managers. She never put herself on a pedestal, believing she was no more or less important to the success of a film than anyone else She was quick to share credit for her successes, and took full blame for her failures.
In return, directors and crews absolutely adored her. They called her The Queen.
She was generous with younger actors, working with them on films and not overpowering them in their scenes. She worked with William Holden in 1939’s Golden Boy, his first picture. He was nervous and not performing well, and was about to be fired, which likely would’ve ended his career before it began. Stanwyck fought for him to remain, and ran lines with him in her dressing room every night after filming ended. Holden was devoted to her for the rest of his life.
* * *
So what did she do with all those dark places hidden within her heart?
All the bitterness braided through the success. The regrets, the heartbreak, the fairness fate had never shown her in her youth.
She did not rage at those who had wronged her, or command attention on set with outrageous demands. She did not thirst after press coverage, good or bad. She did not even confide in friends.
She never gave herself over to addictions, never lost herself in booze, food, sex, or pills.
What did she do?
She waited for the cameras to roll, and then she let it all out for the world to see.
“Stanwyck doesn’t act a scene,” said director Frank Capra, who used Stanwyck more than any other actress, “she lives it.”
The woman who never loosened the reins on her emotions could rage, laugh, suffer, whine, and cry in the guise of someone else.
As Capra also said: “She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped.”
* * *
She gave Hollywood a master class in aging well.
When her hair went grey, despite all the howling about how it would ruin her career, she refused to dye it. As honest and direct with herself as she was with everyone else, she had no illusions of remaining forever young.
When she aged out of a particular role, she let it go and kept going forward. She felt that that nothing was more pathetic than a woman chasing her lost youth.
This flexibility was the key to the second half of her long career.
One year at a time, she went from a few strands of grey to a head of prematurely white hair that became her trademark in her later years. That gorgeous white hair, along with her figure, which had not changed nearly as much from her twenties, made her a more handsome woman than any dye job or makeup could have accomplished.
When the good film parts dried up for good in 1965, she turned her attention to television and finally found the juicy western role she’d long coveted: Victoria Barkley, matriarch on The Big Valley. The show ran 112 episodes over four seasons, with Stanwyck appearing in every episode. At sixty-two, she was doing her own stunts, gaining a whole new audience, and looking better than any of her contemporaries.
And still she kept going.
* * *
So you want the case for why Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress to never win an Oscar? Here it is:
Barbara Stanwyck “kept it there” for nearly sixty years. She starred in eighty-one films, with top billing in all but two.
I covered six of her best films in this blog: Baby Face (1933, covered in Part II on the pre-code films), Stella Dallas (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). [Author’s note: I’d later cover more Stanwyck here, here, and here.]
These are universally considered some of her best films—but I could’ve made my case with the films I left on the cutting room floor: as the spunky sharpshooter in Annie Oakley (1935), a cynical shoplifter softened by love in Remember the Night (1940), the intrepid reporter who inspires the nation in Meet John Doe (1941), and the stoically suffering wife of a philandering husband in the underappreciated East Side, West Side (1949.)
She was the third woman (behind Bette Davis and Lillian Gish) to win the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
She acted more, better, and longer than nearly anyone who ever won the Best Actress statuette.
The lack of an Oscar wasn’t a knock on Barbara Stanwyck’s career.
It was an embarrassment to the Academy.
An award that celebrates excellence in acting that had not recognized Barbara Stanwyck’s efforts was an award not worth winning.
In 1981, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences redeemed itself by awarding Barbara Stanwyck with an honorary Oscar for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
At seventy-four, she had finally climbed to the top of the mountain.
She had done it all, seen it all, and now won it all.
And still she kept going.
* * *
At her age, parts were hard to come by, and it was unlikely Stanwyck would ever get another good one.
And then came Mary Carson and The Thorn Birds.
The Thorn Birds was not a feature film, but an eight-hour made-for-tv miniseries that aired over four nights on ABC in 1983. It was based on Colleen McCullough’s 1977 blockbuster novel of the same name. The Thorn Birds is a sexy, soapy tale of forbidden love, and remains the second-most watched miniseries in the history of television, behind only 1977’s Roots.
And there was seventy-five year old Barbara Stanwyck as Mary Carson, stealing every scene in episode one and lighting the fuse on a plot that would enthrall the nation.
Mary Carson is the wealthy owner of Drogheda, a sheep station in the Australian Outback. She is bitter, lonely, and infatuated with the young and handsome Ralph de Bricassart, a priest serving in the Outback as punishment for an unknown transgression.
Mary amuses herself by dangling her fortune in front of Ralph, who humors her in hopes she will bequeath her considerable estate to the church and catapult him from exile into a cardinalship
Unlike the others, who see him only as a humble priest, Mary sees through to his burning ambitions and his infatuation with young Meggie Cleary.
Barbara Stanwyck is sensational. She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance, and these were no consolation prizes, but earned solely by the merits of her work in the series. Her Mary Carson is cutting, cruel, and yet Stanwyck infuses her with just enough vulnerability and charm that we can’t quite hate her. Most impressive is her lusting after a man nearly fifty years her junior comes off deliciously predatory instead of pathetic.
Ralph learns too late she is as formidable an enemy as he will ever face.
In one of Mother Nature’s best plot twists, the crew had to age Stanwyck with make-up for her final scenes. The seventy-five year old Stanywck, who had refused to wage a war on aging looked too young to portray a seventy-five year old Mary Carson.
Both Stanwyck and Mary Carson know they are nearing the end of the road. When Mary Carson makes her final knockout speech about how she is still young inside her decaying body, it is hard to know if it is Carson or Stanwyck speaking.
One last trip to the mound, and Stanwyck still had her fastball.
Ever perfect and prepared, she did the scene in one take, and the bowled over cast and crew gave her a standing ovation.
It was the finest possible coda to an incredible career.
^ From “Stanwyck” by Axel Madsen
All Frank Capra quotes from “Starring Miss Stanwyck” by Ella Smith
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.
You have covered your story very well. BRAVO! 👍🏽
Thorn Birds introduced me to Stanwyck. It inspired me to seek out her older films. I’m now a huge fan of Stanwyck.