Great Oscar Injustices: Barbara Stanwyck (Part III)
Barbara Stanwyck Oscar Injustice posts…
February 2019: Month of Oscars
Welcome back to week four of my Oscar’s Greatest Injustices series!
We are on my second week of tribute to the Oscar-overlooked Barbara Stanwyck. This is the final of three posts in my Barbara Oscar Injustice Series. Thanks for sticking with me! I know this is a lot of info, but Barbara deserves the royal treatment. (:
Ruby Stevens Had Made It!
Okay, before we move on to Barbara’s life and work from the 1950s on, I think it is important to note two things.
One, by 1944, Barbara was the HIGHEST PAID WOMAN IN AMERICA. The government listed her earnings that year as $400,000. Wow! That is a whopping sum by today’s standards, so you can imagine how even more amazing that was in 1944. Ruby Stevens had “made it” indeed!
Second, Barbara was so popular by the 1940s, babies were named after her. Look at this chart showing the popularity of the name “Barbara” through the decades. It was quite a unique name before Barbara Stanwyck became a popular movie star. And it has once again dipped in popularity as we get further away from her years of stardom. Interesting!
After all of Barbara’s exciting personal and career highs of the 1940s, I have some disappointing news: there just isn’t a lot of information available about the second half of her life. (Victoria Wilson, PLEASE PLEASE publish volume II of your Barbara book soon! We are simply dying to know more!!!) Keep that in mind as I work with what little information I have to carve out a picture of this amazing and intensely private woman during the second half of her life.
So unfortunately, the 50s started out on a personal low for Barbara. Her marriage to Robert Taylor, seemingly so perfect for 11 years, ended in divorce in February 1951, at Taylor’s request. Rumor has it that Taylor began playing around in the later years of the marriage, and a final affair with the beautiful (and always available) Ava Gardner was the final straw. (Sorry Ava, I love you, but not really proud of your behavior here.) Barbara being Barbara, she gave Taylor the requested divorce and they split amicably. I am sure I would have had some lingering hard feelings in such a situation…can you believe the class of this woman???! Seriously Barbara, you are amazing. She always maintained that Taylor was the love of her life, despite the failure of the marriage. Barbara would never marry again.
To add heartache to heartache, Barbara’s relationship with her adopted son, Dion—known as “Tony” by this point—had grown rockier with each year. I don’t know all the facts, but it seems both Barbara and Tony bore responsibility for the misunderstandings and strains that characterized their relationship as Tony grew up. In 1951, Barbara and Tony became estranged, and rarely saw each other between 1951 and Barbara’s death in 1990. So, so sad.
Films from the 1950s
2. Clash By Night (1952)
I feel Barbara channeling her personal heartache into this one, and she plays her character flawlessly. Also starring a very young Marilyn Monroe, who once shared that Barbara was the only star of the previous generation who was kind to her. Barbara took Marilyn under wing on this film, and defended her against the at times cruel and impatient comments the crew made about Marilyn. Oh Barbara, you are always so amazing, I expect nothing less!
4. Titanic (1953)
Barbara stars with Clifton Webb in the original film about the tragic ship. Also starring a young Robert Wagner, with whom Barbara was supposedly involved with off screen for four years. The relationship was so secret—he was 22, she was 44—that very few pictures exist of the two outside of the film publicity shots. (I could only find one!) Hopefully volume II of Victoria Wilson’s Barbara biography—when it is published—will shed some light on how much this relationship was or wasn’t. I know I am dying to find out! (And hear from someone besides Robert Wagner about it.)
Adapting at 50
In 1957, Barbara turned 50, and found it increasingly difficult to find good film roles. In the 1960s she opened up about the difficulties of being a middle aged actress in Hollywood:
“They don’t normally write parts for women my age because America is now a country of youth. We’ve matured and moved on. The past belongs to the past.”
Always a fan of westerns, a genre that is generally kinder to aging actresses, Barbara did good work, AND HER OWN STUNTS, in such westerns as Trooper Hook and Forty Guns, in which she was thrown from and dragged by a horse. Don’t forget, she was 50!
Barbara differed greatly from her peers in regards to television: she realized TV was here to stay, and that it could offer more roles to a woman her age than films. As such, the list of Barbara’s television credits from the late 1950s to the end of her life is extensive. In fact, younger fans may recognize her more from her TV work than her film career. She most notably played Victoria Barkley in the popular television western series “The Big Valley,” from 1965-1969.
"Put Me in the Last Fifteen Minutes"
Barbara continued to work steadily in television as she aged—she was an even more poignant actress at age 76 than at the prime of her Hollywood career. Anyone seen “The Thorn Birds” mini-series (1983)? Barbara will literally rip your heart out. She once said,
Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture, and I don’t care what happened before. I don’t even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing—I’ll take it in those 15 minutes.
To me, she does just that in “The Thorn Birds” when her character emotionally shares how she is still young inside her “stupid [aging] body”. All you need to see of “Thorn Birds” is Barbara in this one scene to know that she indeed takes the whole mini series.
Honorary Oscar and Legacy
In 1982, Barbara finally got her Oscar, an honorary one. And it meant the world to her. In true Barbara style, she graciously and gracefully walked to the podium to receive the award, still a slip of a woman, and spent her acceptance speech thanking others, giving credit for the award to everyone else she worked with, making a joke—
“I tried many times to get this award but I didn’t make it.”
and giving a nod to her dear friend William Holden who had just passed away and always rooted for her to win the coveted Oscar. Talk about class, even in her moment of triumph, that was Barbara.
Barbara passed away on January 20, 1990 in Santa Monica of chronic heart failure and pulmonary disease. Her wish that no funeral service be held was honored, and her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, where she had made so many of her beloved Western films.
I hope Barbara left this world knowing what an amazing person she was, what a shining example her life and how she lived it is to anyone who reads even a fraction about her —the seemingly insurmountable obstacles she faced from the very start of her time on earth—and how she somehow managed to grow stronger as she overcame each and every one.
Barbara believed that if someone from her disadvantaged background could rise above their circumstances and achieve their dreams, anyone could. Barbara Stanwyck is proof that the American Dream is real. You don’t have to be young and just starting out on your path in life to be inspired by this.
“You take a chance the day you’re born. Why stop now?”
Barbara asks in Golden Boy. Let’s all take inspiration from Barbara’s example, and GO FOR IT!!!! in our own lives.
Or at the very least, let’s catch her upcoming movies on TCM, and appreciate the stunning legacy she left us on film! (: