POSTED December 15 2013

Barbara Stanwyck, volume 1 by Victoria Wilson

Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck’s early years read like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in Victoria Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True,  the first installment in the author’s two-volume biography. You can read my review here.

What distinguishes the woman born Ruby Stevens from contemporaries like Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn is that Stanwyck didn’t play variations on a persona. She created each character from scratch. She had the humility to know that the movie was about not her, but rather the story. Where other actors had on/off settings, Stanwyck was born with an emotional rheostat, subtly adjusting her considerable dramatic wattage. She of husky voice and panther lope played chiselers and artist’s models, cardsharps and sharpshooters, newshens and henpeckers. No screen actress had a more varied career.

She rose from the chorus line to radio to Broadway to film, a beneficiary of excellent direction, but also largely inner-directed. Wilson masterfully tells the story of how Ruby Stevens became Barbara Stanwyck. But once the actress moves from Broadway to Hollywood, Wilson loses the thread of her subject’s inner life. The reader knows what and how it happened, but Wilson rarely conjectures why. Still, I can’t wait for volume 2.

What distinguished Stanwyck from other screen actresses? Why does she seem so modern next to other actresses of her generation? Post your favorite Stanwyck movie clip.


  1. Vincent says:

    To me, what makes Stanwyck special is her sheer versatility; she was at home at virtually every genre she touched…pre-Code (if that can be deemed a genre), romantic/screwball comedy (something Bette Davis rarely did and Joan Crawford rarely did well in), film noir, westerns (she was named to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame — not bad for a gal from Brooklyn!). And she probably would have excelled in the few genres she didn’t pursue — imagine her in Sandra Bullock’s role in a 1950s version of “Gravity,” for instance.

  2. wwolfe says:

    Two moments from “A Lady Eve”: her reply of “What a life” to Henry Fonda’s “Snakes are my life, I guess” (this must read as sarcasm on paper, but she gives it a sense of world-weary sympathy) and “I need him like the ax needs a turkey” (funny, precisely because she makes you know she means it). And one from “Remember the Night”: as Fred MacMurray’s family sings “The End of a Perfect Day,” the look in her eyes as she discovers what a good family can feel like.

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