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Barbara Stanwyck: The First Modern Movie Star?

Jun. 20, 2017
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Barbara Stanwyck had the ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary, to make the commonplace seem remarkable and the mundane seem unique. There was always something effortless about her screen persona, yet her beautifully modulated, full-bodied speaking voice clearly showed that she practiced her craft with care. It would underestimate her ability to label her a natural actress. Her performances seemed almost sleight-of-hand, rarely bearing signature trademarks, but the subtlety of her craft was always apparent. She was neither over- nor understated.

If Stanwyck had a specific performance style, it seemed to originate from some spontaneous inner resource that was quintessentially Barbara. As the Bard would say, she was always to her own self true. She made even lesser films seem eminently watchable even if she never had the “great star” trappings typical of other Golden Age actresses. Yet there was a tensile strength to her roles that bespoke a quiet determination to maintain her status no matter what. Stanwyck never allowed her assurance to forgo the struggle it took to get where she was. In a sense, she defines the proud independence of the modern woman emerging in a man’s world. By the same token her likeability factor comes through with the same feminine confidence that defines her best performances. “Hard won” would be an understatement in describing her career. 

Born Ruby Stevens, she lost both parents by the time she was 4. She avoided the truant officers, and with the help of sister, Mildred, did some underage hoofing at vaudeville and burlesque shows. When approached by management to do comedy skits, she replied, “I’m no actress, I can’t do lines.” Yet after a brief stint in silent films, she would move on to become the standard bearer of the lowbrow ladies of leisure in the early 1930s. She was widely admired for Stella Dallas (1937), where her character knowingly conceals her trashy underpinnings to give her daughter a better life. It was the first role to express her true range.

Her popularity soared under the tutelage of Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, who fashioned her effervescent volatility in two classic comedies, The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941). In both films, she hoodwinks unsuspecting males with her special brand of aggressive femininity, which, combined with guileless but never-less-than genuine warmth, carries all before it. By the 1940s, her roles took on a new brand of sophistication that never belied her humble upbringings, but were classically earmarked by her elegant leading lady posture and trademark square-shouldered walk. Stanwyck’s affectations never seemed pretentious, and her unassuming persona was evident even in lesser films that remain perennially watchable. 

She never played an entirely unsympathetic character until her greatest and most famous role, the seductive, murderous wife in Billy Wilder’s unforgettable noir classic, Double Indemnity (1944). By then Stanwyck had developed her craft to the point where she could drain her characterization of all compassion and give a sublimely effortless, understated performance that gave no quarter or strove for the slightest empathy. “I’m rotten to the heart—never loved anybody,” she murmurs. It was a merciless characterization that finally placed her in the path of great actresses.

Yet for all her acclaim, Stanwyck was not often taken seriously. After Double Indemnity, she seldom received roles befitting her abilities, but she brought an earnestness to her later performances that made the material seem significant. Post-Indemnity she was often handed standard melodramas. Audiences responded to her pyrotechnics even if they did not take her roles too seriously. Unfortunately, the declining level of her material, combined with an increasingly clipped delivery, concealed what she was really capable of. Despite what Stanwyck had so often demonstrated in the past, she was pegged as a melodrama queen rather than a great actress.

She disfigured her rival with a pair of scissors in The Furies (1950).  She pursued an aging Gary Cooper in Blowing Wild (1953). She was strident and ludicrous as a lesbian in Walk on the Wild Side (1962). Her increasingly relentless performances made these bad films seem excitingly hilarious as her burnished elegance compensated for the problematic screenplays. She added a touch of class to anything she endeavored. She remains eternally fascinating and her abilities seem more appreciated in retrospect. As film historian Dave Thompson put it, “At her death it was clear how widely she was loved. She was honest, sharp, gutsy, and smart. Terrific.”

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