Barbara Stanwyck

Active - 1927 - 2015  |   Born - Jul 16, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York, United States  |   Died - Jan 20, 1990   |   Genres - Drama, Romance

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

In an industry of prima donnas, actress Barbara Stanwyck was universally recognized as a consummate professional; a supremely versatile performer, her strong screen presence established her as a favorite of directors, including Cecil B. De Mille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra. Born Ruby Stevens July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, NY, she was left orphaned at the age of four and raised by her showgirl sister. Upon quitting school a decade later, she began dancing in local speakeasies and at the age of 15 became a Ziegfeld chorus girl. In 1926, Stanwyck made her Broadway debut in The Noose, becoming a major stage star in her next production, Burlesque. MGM requested a screen test, but she rejected the offer. She did, however, agree to a supporting role in 1927's Broadway Nights, and after completing her stage run in 1929 appeared in the drama The Locked Door. With her husband, comedian Frank Fay, Stanwyck traveled to Hollywood. After unsuccessfully testing at Warner Bros., she appeared in Columbia's low-budget Mexicali Rose, followed in 1930 by Capra's Ladies of Leisure, the picture which shot her to stardom. A long-term Columbia contract was the result, and the studio soon loaned Stanwyck to Warners for 1931's Illicit. It was a hit, as was the follow-up Ten Cents a Dance. Reviewers were quite taken with her, and with a series of successful pictures under her belt, she sued Columbia for a bigger salary; a deal was struck to share her with Warners, and she split her time between the two studios for pictures including Miracle Woman, Night Nurse, and Forbidden, a major hit which established her among the most popular actresses in Hollywood. Over the course of films like 1932's Shopworn, Ladies They Talk About, and Baby Face, Stanwyck developed an image as a working girl, tough-minded and often amoral, rarely meeting a happy ending; melodramas including 1934's Gambling Lady and the following year's The Woman in Red further established the persona, and in Red Salute she even appeared as a student flirting with communism. Signing with RKO, Stanwyck starred as Annie Oakley; however, her contract with the studio was non-exclusive, and she also entered into a series of multi-picture deals with the likes of Fox (1936's A Message to Garcia) and MGM (His Brother's Wife, co-starring Robert Taylor, whom she later married).

For 1937's Stella Dallas, Stanwyck scored the first of four Academy Award nominations. Refusing to be typecast, she then starred in a screwball comedy, Breakfast for Two, followed respectively by the downcast 1938 drama Always Goodbye and the caper comedy The Mad Miss Manton. After the 1939 De Mille Western Union Pacific, she co-starred with William Holden in Golden Boy, and with Henry Fonda she starred in Preston Sturges' outstanding The Lady Eve. For the 1941 Howard Hawks comedy Ball of Fire, Stanwyck earned her second Oscar nomination. Another superior film, Capra's Meet John Doe, completed a very successful year. Drama was the order of the day for the next few years, as she starred in pictures like The Gay Sisters and The Great Man's Lady. In 1944, she delivered perhaps her most stunning performance in Billy Wilder's classic noir Double Indemnity. Stanwyck's stunning turn as a femme fatale secured her a third Oscar bid and helped make her, according to the IRS, the highest-paid woman in America. It also won her roles in several of the decade's other great film noirs, including 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and 1949's The File on Thelma Jordon.

In between, Stanwyck also starred in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number, her final Academy Award-nominated performance. The 1950s, however, were far less kind, and strong roles came her way with increasing rarity. With Anthony Mann she made The Furies and with Lang she appeared opposite Marilyn Monroe in 1952's Clash by Night, but much of her material found her typecast -- in 1953's All I Desire, she portrayed a heartbroken mother not far removed from the far superior Stella Dallas, while in 1954's Blowing Wild she was yet another tough-as-nails, independent woman. Outside of the all-star Executive Suite, Stanwyck did not appear in another major hit; she let her hair go gray, further reducing her chances of winning plum parts, and found herself cast in a series of low-budget Westerns. Only Samuel Fuller's 1957 picture Forty Guns, a film much revered by the Cahiers du Cinema staff, was of any particular notice. It was also her last film for five years. In 1960, she turned to television to host The Barbara Stanwyck Show, winning an Emmy for her work.

Stanwyck returned to cinemas in 1962, portraying a lesbian madam in the controversial Walk on the Wild Side. Two years later, she co-starred with Elvis Presley in Roustabout. That same year, she appeared in the thriller The Night Walker, and with that, her feature career was over. After rejecting a role in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, she returned to television to star in the long-running Western series The Big Valley, earning another Emmy for her performance as the matriarch of a frontier family. Upon the show's conclusion, Stanwyck made a TV movie, The House That Would Not Die. She then appeared in two more, 1971's A Taste of Evil and 1973's The Letters, before vanishing from the public eye for the remainder of the decade. In 1981, she was awarded an honorary Oscar; two years later, she was also the recipient of a Lincoln Center Life Achievement Award. Also in 1983, Stanwyck returned to television to co-star in the popular miniseries The Thorn Birds. Two years later, she headlined The Colbys, a spin-off of the hugely successful nighttime soap opera Dynasty. It was her last project before retiring. Stanwyck died January 20, 1990.

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  • Orphaned at age 4; raised by an older sister.
  • Was a Ziegfeld girl by age 15.
  • Playwright Willard Mack changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck after seeing "Jane Stanwyck in 'Barbara Frietchie'" on a playbill.
  • Gained popularity during the Depression for her screen portrayals of underdog characters in such films as The Miracle Woman and Shopworn.
  • Tumultuous marriage to vaudevillian Frank Fay is generally believed to be the inspiration for 1937's A Star Is Born.
  • Was the highest-paid female in the U.S. in 1944, according to the IRS, making $400,000.
  • Was sent a bouquet of roses every April 1 by William Holden from 1940 until his death in '81 to show appreciation for her refusal to let Columbia Pictures fire him on Golden Boy, which began production on April 1, 1939.
  • Received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1960.
  • Listed as the 11th all-time greatest female star by the American Film Institute.