Nationality: American. Born: Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, New York, 16 July 1907. Education: Attended elementary schools in Brooklyn. Family: Married 1) Frank Fay, 1928 (divorced 1935); 2) the actor Robert Taylor, 1939 (divorced 1951). Career: Working girl from early age; wrapper in a department store, telephone operator, pattern cutter, file clerk; then dancer in night clubs; 1923—first stage appearance in musical comedy; toured with Ziegfeld Follies of 1923; 1926—in dramatic role in stage play The Noose; 1927—film debut in Broadway Nights; 1931—contract with Warner Brothers; 1935—freelance actress; 1936—began radio acting with Lux Radio Theatre; 1956—formed Barwyk Corporation production company; 1960–61—host of TV series The Barbara Stanwyck Show, and in The Big Valley series, 1965–69; 1980s—in TV mini-series The Thorn Birds, 1983, and 1985–86 in series The Colbys. Awards: Co-recipient, Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting, Venice Festival, for Executive Suite, 1954; Special Academy Award, for "superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting," 1981. Died: In Santa Monica, California, 20 January 1990.
Films as Actress:
Broadway Nights (Boyle) (as dancer)
The Locked Door (Fitzmaurice) (as Ann Carter); Mexicali Rose (Kenton) (title role)
Ladies of Leisure (Capra) (as Kay Arnold)
Illicit (Mayo) (as Anne Vincent); Ten Cents a Dance (Barrymore) (as Barbara O'Neil); Night Nurse (Wellman) (as Lora Hart); The Miracle Woman (Capra) (as Florence Fallon)
Forbidden (Capra) (as Lulu Smith); Shopworn (Grinde) (as Kitty Lane); So Big (Wellman) (as Selina Peake Dejong); The Purchase Price (Wellman) (as Joan Gordon)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra) (as Megan Davis); Ladies They Talk About (Bretherton) (as Nan Taylor); Baby Face (Green) (as Lily Powers); Ever in My Heart (Mayo) (as Mary Archer)
Gambling Lady (Mayo) (as Lady Lee); A Lost Lady (Green) (as Marian Ormsby)
The Secret Bride (Dieterle) (as Ruth Vincent); The Woman in Red (Florey) (as Shelby Barrett); Red Salute (Lanfield) (as Drue Van Allen); Annie Oakley (Stevens) (title role)
A Message to Garcia (George Marshall) (as Raphaelita Maderos); The Bride Walks Out (Jason) (as Carolyn Martin); His Brother's Wife (Van Dyke) (as Rita Wilson); Banjo on My Knee (Cromwell) (as Pearl Holley); The Plough and the Stars (Ford) (as Nora Clitheroe)
Interns Can't Take Money (Santell) (as Janet Haley); This Is My Affair (Seiter) (as Lil Duryea); Stella Dallas (King Vidor) (title role); Breakfast for Two (Santell) (as Valentine Ransom)
Always Goodbye (Lanfield) (as Margot Weston); The Mad Miss Manton (Jason) (title role)
Union Pacific (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Mollie Monahan); Golden Boy (Mamoulian) (as Lorna Moon)
Remember the Night (Leisen) (as Lee Leander)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges) (as Jean Harrington); Meet John Doe (Capra) (as Ann Mitchell); You Belong to Me (Ruggles) (as Helen Hunt); Ball of Fire (Hawks) (as Sugarpuss O'Shea)
The Great Man's Lady (Wellman) (as Hannah Sempler); The Gay Sisters (Rapper) (as Fiona Gaylord)
Lady of Burlesque (Wellman) (as Dixie Daisy); Flesh and Fantasy (Duvivier) (as Joan Stanley)
Double Indemnity (Wilder) (as Phyllis Dietrichson); Hollywood Canteen (Daves) (as herself)
Christmas in Connecticut (Godfrey) (as Elizabeth Lane)
My Reputation (Bernhardt) (as Jessica Drummond); The Bride Wore Boots (Pichel) (as Sally Warren); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone) (title role); California (Farrow) (as Lily Bishop)
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (Godfrey) (as Sally Morton Carroll); The Other Half (de Toth) (as Karen Duncan); Cry Wolf (Godfrey) (as Sandra Marshall); Variety Girl (George Marshall) (as herself)
B. F.'s Daughter (Leonard) (as Polly Fulton); Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak) (as Leona Stevenson)
The Lady Gambles (Gordon) (as Joan Boothe); East Side, West Side (LeRoy) (as Jessie Brown)
The File on Thelma Jordan (Siodmak) (title role); No Man of Her Own (Leisen) (as Helen Ferguson); The Furies (Anthony Mann) (as Vance Jeffords); To Please a Lady (Brown) (as Regina Forbes)
The Man with a Cloak (Markle) (as Lorna Bounty)
Clash by Night (Fritz Lang) (as Mae Doyle)
Jeopardy (John Sturges) (as Helen Stilwin); Titanic (Negulesco) (as Julia Sturges); All I Desire (Sirk) (as Naomi Murdoch); The Moonlighter (Rowland) (as Rela); Blowing Wild (Fregonese) (as Marina)
Executive Suite (Wise) (as Julie Tredway); Witness to Murder (Rowland) (as Cheryl Draper); Cattle Queen of Montana (Dwan) (as Sierra Nevada Jones)
The Violent Men (Maté) (as Martha Wilkinson); Escape to Burma (Dwan) (as Gwen Moore)
There's Always Tomorrow (Sirk) (as Norma Miller); The Maverick Queen (Kane) (as Kit Banion); These Wilder Years (Rowland) (as Ann Dempster)
Crime of Passion (Oswald) (as Kathy); Trooper Hook (Warren) (as Cora); Forty Guns (Fuller) (as Jessica Drummond)
Walk on the Wild Side (Dmytryk) (as Jo Courtney)
Roustabout (Rich) (as Maggie Morgan)
The Night Walker (Castle) (as Irene Trent)
The House That Wouldn't Die (Llewellyn—for TV) (as Ruth Bennett)
A Taste of Evil (Llewellyn—for TV) (as Miriam Jennings)
The Letters (Nelson—for TV) (as Geraldine Parkington)
By STANWYCK: articles—
"Stanwyck Speaks," interview with B. Drew, in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1981.
Interview with Robert Blees, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1987.
On STANWYCK: books—
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Smith, Ella, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, New York, 1974; rev. ed., 1985.
Vermilye, Jerry, Barbara Stanwyck, New York, 1975.
DiOrio, Al, Barbara Stanwyck, New York, 1983.
Dickens, Homer, The Films of Barbara Stanwyck, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1984.
Wayne, Jane Ellen, Stanwyck, New York, 1985.
Madsen, Axel, Stanwyck, New York, 1994.
On STANWYCK: articles—
Current Biography 1947, New York, 1947.
Ringgold, Gene, "Barbara Stanwyck," in Films in Review (New York), December 1963.
Lewis, Joseph H., "Barbara Stanwyck: A Fiery Devotion," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Corliss, Richard, "Barbara Stanwyck," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
"Class," by J. McCourt, "Stella Stanwyck," by D. Thomson, "Stanwyck & Capra," by R. T. Jameson, and "The Strange Fate of Barbara Stanwyck," by S. Harvey, in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1981.
"Barbara Stanwyck," letter from M. Buckley, in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1981.
Lloyd, A., "Barbara Stanwyck," in Films and Filming (London), July 1984.
Viviani, C., and Yann Tobin, "Capra et Barbara Stanwyck: éclat et éclatement du mélo," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1987.
Peary., G., "Barbara Stanwyck," in American Film (New York), July/August 1989.
McBride, Joseph, obituary in Variety (New York), 24 January 1990.
Murphy, Kathleen, "Farewell My Lovelies," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1990.
Sheppard, G., "Robert Taylor & the Queen!" in Hollywood: Then and Now (Studio City), no. 5, 1991.
Ward, L.E., "The Lady from Brooklyn: Remembering Barbara Stanwyck," in Classic Images (Muscatine), February 1992.
Holt, Wesley G., "Baby Face/Night Nurse," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1993.
King, T.L., "The High-ridin' Woman: Barbara Stanwyck's Challenge to the Western Hero," in Michigan Academician, no. 3, 1997.
* * *
Of strong and resolute character, the Stanwyck woman seemed equal to whatever life might bring her, and the result was that there was little in the way of struggle, corruption, sacrifice, hysteria, or fun that Barbara Stanwyck did not experience and convey with startling honesty.
It was Frank Capra who first recognized and elicited Stanwyck's ability to render emotion before it has been rationalized or repressed. Under his direction, she gave her most sensual performance in The Bitter Tea of General Yen as a straight-laced, yet fervent missionary who comes to not only accept but love the cultivated warlord who abducts her. The expected changes of heart that Capra's populist comedies would dramatize were first and more subtly worked out in his films with the young, pliant Stanwyck. Capra brought out the moral passion lurking in Stanwyck's intensity, the counterpart to the talent for evil that her film noir roles would later explore.
Stanwyck's capacity for self-transfiguration, which Capra put to ironic use in his tale of a compromised female evangelist, The Miracle Woman, has been overlooked by even her most sympathetic critics, but the last shot of Stella Dallas proclaims and glorifies it. Even in less high-toned films about female self-betterment such as Shopworn and Capra's Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck showed undisguised feeling for the dreams, often understandably shabby, dreamt by those with little hope and no faith except in themselves.
Her comic heroines never quite forget their relation to their hardboiled, often manhandled cousins. Even when presented the assured blessings of comic existence, Stanwyck never trusts to luck alone; romantic kismet, in particular, is notoriously unreliable. In The Lady Eve she spends the first half of the film falling for her chosen dupe, the irresistibly naive Henry Fonda, the second half revenging herself on him for not seeing that good girls are not as good as they look and bad girls not as bad as he thinks. She is equally convincing in admitting the limits of her wisdom, as in her savvy, yet tenderhearted performance as the newspaperwoman who pleads for the populist idealism she once scoffed at in Meet John Doe.
In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Stanwyck was called upon to exhibit and endure a battery of female neuroses—invalidism, masochism, helpless addiction, and baffled desire—taking on such parts as the hysteric in Sorry, Wrong Number and a gambler beaten within an inch of her life in The Lady Gambles. Even when possessed of power she would turn it against herself, nursing her impotent hatred for the tycoon who rejected her in Executive Suite or, more strikingly, concealing a murderous hatred and even more fatal love in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. But she also struggled against quieter forms of desperation, nowhere with more dignity than in two of Douglas Sirk's less gaudy melodramas of life desiccated by convention, All I Desire and There's Always Tomorrow. These years touched more boldly, too, on a sexual ambiguity that could shadow her femme fatales and self-reliant frontier women. Her harsh blond in Double Indemnity intensifies rather than interrupts the relationship between Fred McMurray's Walter and Edward G. Robinson's Keyes, giving a peculiar suggestion to the desperation in Walter's passion for her. By the time of Walk on the Wild Side she unabashedly plays a lesbian madam.
Fearless in whatever psychic territory she was asked to explore, she braved the wilds of the first patently Freudian Western, The Furies, and in old age was mortified by sexual desire in The Thorn Birds. Whether playing a struggling working girl, burlesque queen, madcap heiress, sassy gunmoll, doting mother, lonely career woman, restless wife, murderous adulteress, or rugged frontier woman, Stanwyck could gaze into the heart of her character and never blink.
—Arthur Nolletti Jr., updated by Maria DiBattista