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Barbara Stanwyck had the ability "to grab your heart and tear it to pieces," said Frank Capra of the star he directed five times. The documentary Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire (1991) lends support to Capra's words, demonstrating her remarkable range in film clips from her six decades in Hollywood. Included are glimpses of Stanwyck at every stage of her career; she conquered every genre from screwball comedy (Ball of Fire, 1941) to thriller (Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948) to soap opera (Stella Dallas, 1937) and every role from tough-as-nails working girl (Shopworn, 1932) to femme fatale (Double Indemnity, 1944) to TV matriarch (The Big Valley). Stanwyck was considered a consummate professional, who as the documentary says, "lived fiercely before the camera and almost shyly off it."
Stanwyck's story is a classic rags-to-riches tale. Orphaned at four after her mother died (her father had deserted the family a few years earlier), Stanwyck (born Ruby Stevens) grew up in poverty in Brooklyn foster homes. She started dancing at age 16, first in local speakeasies, before becoming a Ziegfeld chorus girl. Stanwyck hit Broadway in 1926 in The Noose and two years later, when her husband, comedian Frank Fay, accepted a Hollywood contract, Stanwyck went along. Her first stand out movie opportunity came in Capra's Ladies of Leisure (1930), where she played a reformed bad girl; it would become one of her trademark characters and she played a string of them in the Pre-Code 1930s, appearing in movies like: Illicit (1931) as a woman opposed to marriage, The Purchase Price (1932) as a dubious mail order bride, and Baby Face (1933) as a gold digger who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder.
Only Capra seemed to notice the actress's softer side. He cast her as phony evangelist whose faith is restored in The Miracle Woman (1931). The role would give Stanwyck a more sympathetic screen image and expand her range. Capra's secret insight into Stanwyck was that she always gave her best performance on the first take, and so the director used up to four cameras to capture those takes from every angle. Capra would direct Stanwyck three more times -- in Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Meet John Doe (1941). Another role that revealed Stanwyck's sensitive side was that of self-sacrificing mother Stella Dallas. Soon after, Stanwyck transitioned into 1940s romantic comedies, most notably in Preston Sturges' delightful The Lady Eve (1941).
Another genre that stretched Stanwyck's range was film noir. Her turn as the seductive wife who plots to murder her husband in Double Indemnity made Stanwyck the highest paid woman in America in 1944. Stanwyck's other quintessential noirs of the 40s were The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and The File on Thelma Jordan (1950). When she wasn't plotting the crime, Stanwyck could make for a sympathetic victim. One film, in particular, that left her (and audiences) in a state of terror was Sorry, Wrong Number. In the movie Stanwyck plays a bedridden woman who over crossed phone lines overhears a plot to murder her. Sorry, Wrong Number brought Stanwyck her fourth and final Oscar® nomination for Best Actress. She was also recognized for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire and Double Indemnity but never took home the statue.
She was, however, awarded an honorary Oscar® in 1981 and in 1983 received a Lincoln Center Life Achievement Award. Stanwyck's later work shifted to television, where she played the wise matriarch on the Western TV series The Big Valley from 1965 to 1969. In 1983, Stanwyck played another memorable grand dame in the popular miniseries The Thorn Birds. And her last role came on the Dynasty spin off The Colbys in 1985-86.
Barbara Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990. But the no-nonsense, resilient ladies she played on screen still provide an inspiration to aspiring actresses. As narrator Sally Field says in Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire, Stanwyck was "never less than any man's equal."
Producer: Richard Schickel, Carol Rubinstein
Director: Richard Schickel
Screenplay: Richard Schickel
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Film Editing: Peter Wood
Art Direction: Denise Ogawa
Music: Arthur B. Rubinstein
Cast: Sally Field, Barbara Stanwyck.
by Stephanie Thames