Great Oscar Injustices: Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck Oscar Injustice Series Posts…
February 2019: Month of Oscars
No Star of the Month for February! Instead TCM will play various films that have been nominated for or won Oscars.
I wanted to do something a little different this month and showcase two amazing actors who never won an Oscar for a film performance, despite their amazing talent and contributions to countless films that did win Oscars.
The second star I want to highlight this month is to me, just as much as a perplexing case of Oscar Injustice as Cary Grant, maybe even more so.
She was nominated four times during her career, made over 80 films, and played characters ranging from burlesque dancers to self-sacrificing mothers to cold blooded killers. And she played them all UTTERLY. BELIEVEABLY. She brought laughter, sympathy, hate, or love to our eyes, whatever the role called for, with complete credibility.
Old movie fans probably accurately guessed who I am referring to before getting half way through the last paragraph, and new fans, if you have not yet discovered this gem of an actress, I am thrilled to introduce you to her, and wish I could be there with you when you discover and watch her films.
I am talking about the great Barbara Stanwyck.
Great Oscar Injustices
Barbara Stanwyck, One of Oscar’s Greatest Injustices
I have never forgotten the first time I saw Ms Stanwyck’s intriguing face, or read that strong name. I was nine years old and had just discovered Marilyn Monroe in a Toys R Us magazine—the Marilyn Barbie spoke to me (figuratively, of course!), and my interest in old movies was piqued. Not long after, my dad brought me home a book from his latest trip to Barnes & Noble — do people still go to bookstores these days, or is that (unfortunately) a thing of the past? — entitled “Movie-Star Portraits of the Forties,” compiled by John Kobal.
If you can get your hands on a copy, I recommend this book as an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the faces of the stars of that period, then research and watch films of the stars that intrigue you. That is what I did! So many of my favorite stars today can be traced back to this book my dad brought home for me, Stanwyck being case in point. And also take a look at Kobal’s “Hollywood Glamour Portraits,” mainly star photographs from the 1920s and 1930s, and Kobal’s “Film-Star Portraits of the 1950s.”
First order of business of course was to go to the index of my new book and find out what pages Marilyn appeared on. After that was taken care of, I started looking through the rest of the book. As I scrolled through, there was a picture of a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair that immediately captured my attention, and it wasn’t Marilyn.
I studied the picture for a long time. “Is she beautiful, or not?” I remember asking myself. I could not make up my mind. She didn’t have a cute little button nose like Esther Williams, she didn’t have pouty lips like Marilyn, and she didn’t have large, fawn-like eyes like Audrey Hepburn. But somehow, it didn’t matter, this woman was so incredibly attractive and I could not stop looking at her.
Yes, it was Barbara Stanwyck, a headshot from Double Indemnity (1944). It would still be years before I saw the film, but at nine years old, I experienced my first taste of the Stanwyck magic: other stars were more stereotypically beautiful, glamorous, scandalous, and flashy, but Barbara had this quality, this star quality, that just radiated through her being, starting in those beautiful eyes she used so well. There has never been another like her, and if you ask me there never will!
I honestly have no idea why the woman never won an Oscar. She was well liked by her peers in the movie industry, and acted in films of the type the Academy likes to reward. So why was she so consistently overlooked? I truly cannot speculate.
As such, this post will focus on the parts of Ms. Stanwyck’s life that fascinate or particularly touch me, up to about 1935. I will cover the rest of her life, with a strong influence on my favorite films of hers from 1935 on—for that is the time I think her career got really interesting—next week. Ms. Stanwyck was an intensely private person, but from the information available on her, it is clear that she was as extraordinary off screen as she was on. To say Barbara is one of my great role models would be an understatement.
She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Poor Ruby had the deck stacked against her from the beginning. She was the youngest of five children, with 3 much older sisters and a brother, the sibling closest to her in age (and just in general.) When Ruby was only four years old, her mother Catherine, pregnant again, was pushed off a streetcar by a drunk. The fall resulted in severe head injuries, and after fighting for life for a month, Catherine and her unborn child passed away.
I am emotional as I write this, I just cannot imagine, losing your mother and baby sibling at four years old. But Ruby still had her dad, right?
Well…no. Two weeks after her mother was buried, Ruby’s father Byron deserted his family, and took off to help built the Panama Canal. He was never seen again. Mother sadly passed, and Dad out of the picture, so no parents for Ruby. And she was only four.
Ruby and her brother Byron (Malcom by birth, but he took on his father’s first name after he vanished) spent the rest of their childhood years hopping from one foster home to another, often they were separated and sent to different homes, much to their dismay. They became even closer through these difficult times, and for the rest of her life, Ruby remained loyal to her older brother, and once she made it big in Hollywood, offered her home to him and helped him get extra work in films. (That loyalty was reciprocated, as well.)
Side note: Do you wonder why her older sisters didn’t step in and take Ruby and Byron under wing? ME TOO. At times they did, but none of the sisters could (or were willing?) to make the necessary adjustments in their lives and/or families to take in young Ruby and Byron permanently.
Ruby had every reason to withdraw from life but didn’t. She was a fighter.
Looking back at this time in 1938, Barbara shared that
“growing up in one foster home after another didn’t give me any edge on the other kids or any excuse for whining, protesting, demanding. Besides, why whine?”
She continued, adding that the situation of children with circumstances like hers was
“hapless, maybe, but not helpless, not hopeless.”
Talk about a trouper. How many of us today could benefit from sharing that attitude? I know I certainly could!
The Birth of Barbara Stanwyck
By the time she was 14, Ruby knew she wanted a career in show business. She started out as a dancer and a showgirl. Barbara was never one to harp on the past or even talk about the difficulties she experienced at this or any other time in her life, but is pretty safe to say that as a young, struggling chorus girl in oftentimes mob attended, shady clubs of the 1920s, Ruby learned fast how to defend her virtue against the unsavory characters she dealt with at this stage of her fledgling career. Co-stars and co-workers from her Hollywood years recalled seeing cigarette stub scars on her chest, remnants of this time when young Ruby had to fend for and protect herself so fiercely. If she didn’t, who else would?
Ruby danced in choruses, burlesque, and eventually landed a gig in a Ziegfeld Follies production before getting her big break after meeting playwright Willard Mack, who thought this showgirl may have potential to do more than hoof. He cast her in 1926’s “The Noose,” Ruby’s first chance at solid acting, on Broadway no less. Mack could tell she would be a hit, and re-named her “Barbara Stanwyck,” pasting the name together from an old program for a play he found called “Barbara Frietchie,” which starred an actress named Jane Stanwyck. And so Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck!
Barbara was a hit in “The Noose,” and landed another role on Broadway in 1928’s, Burlesque, in which she met her soon to be husband, Frank Fay. Fay was the darling of Broadway at the time. A comic along the lines of Jack Benny—in fact, Benny credits Fay for influencing his own comedic style and persona—Fay was the most sought after M.C. on Broadway, and Hollywood had big plans for him. Fay and Barbara wed in August of 1928, and it was not long before they were off to Hollywood to try their hands at film careers.
Barbara initially had a rocky start in Hollywood. The director of her first film, The Locked Door (1929) reportedly shouted on set in front of the whole crew that he
“Couldn’t make Stanwyck beautiful!”
OH MY GOSH can you imagine? How do you recover from that? Apparently Barbara was smart enough not to put any stock in this vicious explosion, and kept moving forward with the film and her career.
After this bumpy beginning, a funny thing happened: Barbara ended up being the spouse who found success in the movies. Unfortunately, it was too much for Fay’s ego to handle. He became an abusive alcoholic. Barbara put up with Fay’s alcoholism and physical and mental abuse for some time, convinced that he would change and the marriage could be saved if she were just tenacious enough. But not even the adoption of a son in 1932, Dion Anthony Fay, could save the marriage. (A botched abortion at age 15 left Barbara unable to have children. The experience made her a pro-life advocate for the rest of her life.)
Fay’s alcoholism and abuse continued to reach new heights. At one point he reportedly threw Dion into their pool. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with Barbara, and the couple divorced in 1935. Their seven-year marriage lasted as long as it did largely out of Barbara’s sheer will power.
Ok, so it’s 1935, Barbara is 28, and thus far she has survived: being orphaned, growing up in foster homes without a constant home or family life, hoofing in mob-riddled 1920s NYC, and an abusive, alcoholic husband. Can the girl catch a break??!
Well, really I mean can she catch a break in her personal life. Her career through all of this was overall on a steady rise. Ladies of Leisure (1930) marked the beginning of her magnificent film relationship with director Frank Capra, Night Nurse (1931) is a great film also featuring a very young Clark Gable (as a villan!), and 1933’s Baby Face, though not one of my favorites, is undeniably a watershed film in her career and Hollywood history overall.
It is evident that work was Barbara’s saving grace. Work got her through the tough times, that was how she admirably dealt with the adversity in her personal life. I love this quote from her in 1937:
“I knew that after fourteen I’d have to earn my own living, but I was willing to do that…I’ve always been a little sorry for pampered people, and of course, they’re ‘very’ sorry for me.”
How awesome is she?!!
Good news though, as Barbara’s hard work continued to pay off in her film career, she also finally caught the big break in her personal life she (and we!!!) had been waiting for. And his name was Robert Taylor.
And on that note, I close this post! Stay tuned next week, when my Barbara Stanwyck Oscar Injustice Series continues! (: