by Trudy Ring ~ Posted July 16, 2017
Natural. Genuine. Honest. These are the best words to describe BARBARA STANWYCK’s acting. In every film she made, across a variety of genres, she made you believe in the character she played.
Yet she never won a competitive Oscar. Nominated four times, for four very different movies, she was a perennial bridesmaid. All these performances were great, as were many others throughout her long career, and one brought us an iconic villainess in an iconic film noir.
Why she never won could be chalked up to the competition in any given year, the arbitrary nature of choosing a “best” performance, or perhaps just that she made acting look so easy. But Stanwyck’s performances endure, and she’ll continue to rate highly with film fans when many of her contemporaries are forgotten.
Stanwyck, like many of the characters she played, came up the hard way. Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, she was just four years old when her mother was pushed off a streetcar and killed. Shortly thereafter, her father deserted his five children; Ruby was raised by her older sister, a showgirl. In her teens, Ruby became a showgirl herself. One thing led to another, and with the new name Barbara Stanwyck, she became a Broadway star, then went to Hollywood with her first husband, actor Frank Fay.
In the 1930s, she appeared in many early films by Frank Capra and William Wellman, along with sexy pre-Code melodramas like “Baby Face” and Western sagas like “Annie Oakley.” In 1937 came the film that resulted in her first Oscar nomination: “Stella Dallas.”
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“STELLA DALLAS” is a film that shouldn’t hold up 80 years later, but amazingly, it does, largely due to the utter sincerity of Stanwyck’s performance. Directed by King Vidor, it’s based on a 1922 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty (who also gave us “Now, Voyager”, another novel that became a classic film), which had already been adapted into a silent movie in 1925. Even in 1937, it was considered ridiculously soapy, but as film historian Leslie Halliwell wrote, “Audiences came to sneer and stayed to weep.”
Stanwyck is Stella Martin, a working-class girl with a crush on a handsome young executive at the textile mill where her father and brother toil. That exec is Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who’s rebuilding his life after multiple tragedies…his father has committed suicide after losing the family fortune, and the woman he loved has married another man. He responds to the lively, charming Stella; they marry after a whirlwind courtship and soon become parents of a daughter, Laurel. But they’re too different for the marriage to endure. Stella doesn’t have the refinement the rather stuffy Stephen expects in a wife, so they separate, with Stephen taking a job in New York and Stella staying in the mill town near Boston to bring up Laurel.
Stella is completely devoted to Laurel (Anne Shirley), who somehow grows up to be more like her very proper father, whom she sees only during vacations, than her mother, who remains a bit rough around the edges despite her deeply good heart. Stella also is often a victim of circumstance, mostly due to her friendship with the disreputable Ed Munn (Alan Hale Sr.), who usually shows up just in time to offend Stephen or the mothers of Laurel’s schoolmates. And when Stephen is reunited with his lost love, the classy Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil), now conveniently widowed, Stella sees a chance to let her daughter have a place in high society, even if she must withdraw from Laurel’s life. Stella’s sacrifice may be the stuff of melodrama, but darned if you don’t believe in the character 100 percent. Whether horsing around with Ed, being embarrassed for Laurel, or showing the ultimate in mother love, Stanwyck’s Stella is thoroughly convincing. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the final scene. If you don’t know what this scene entails, I won’t offer a spoiler, just a recommendation that you see the movie!
Stanwyck had formidable competition in the 1937 Best Actress race: Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth”, Greta Garbo in “Camille”, Janet Gaynor in “A Star Is Born”, and the winner, Luise Rainer in “The Good Earth” oddly, the only one of those films this writer hasn’t seen. The other performances are all deservedly esteemed, and it would be hard to choose the best among them.
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Stanwyck got her next nomination for 1941’s “Ball of Fire”, a comedy with a deliciously wacky script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, directed by Howard Hawks. Here she’s Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer appearing with no less than Gene Krupa and his swing band, and girlfriend of gangster Joe Lilac, played by Dana Andrews. But the heat is on for Joe, who’s a murder suspect, and to avoid being questioned by police, Sugarpuss decides to hide out with a group of professors who are working on an encyclopedia, having already impressed one of them with her wide vocabulary of contemporary slang. That one is Bertram Potts, who, since he’s portrayed by the young and gorgeous Gary Cooper, stands out from the other professors who are not exactly matinee idols. But the zestful, worldly Sugarpuss brings joy to the lives of all these cloistered academics, and in
a case of opposites definitely attracting, sparks fly between her and Bertram, whom she calls “Pottsy.” Complications arise, but you won’t win if you bet against a happy ending. And Stanwyck is delightful and convincing throughout, and there are good performances as well from Cooper, Andrews, Dan Duryea as another mobster, and all the wonderful character actors who play the professors, including Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, and Oscar Homolka.
The 1941 Best Actress contest was another embarrassment of riches: Bette Davis for “The Little Foxes”, Greer Garson for “Blossoms in the Dust”, Olivia de Havilland for “Hold Back the Dawn”, and the winner, Joan Fontaine for “Suspicion.” Many observers considered Fontaine’s Oscar to be a consolation prize because she didn’t win for “Rebecca” the previous year, but still, her “Suspicion” performance was excellent, and again in this race, it’s hard to pick which nominee was “best.”
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Stanwyck was next nominated for “Double Indemnity”, from 1944, and this time she should have won. Her Phyllis Dietrichson is the iciest and most manipulative of villainesses, and the film is one of Hollywood’s greatest, in the film noir genre and overall. It reunited Stanwyck with Billy Wilder, who was by this time directing, and he also wrote the script with renowned mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Wilder and Chandler expanded on and improved a novella by another icon of hard-boiled fiction, James M. Cain. The dialogue practically crackles.
Phyllis [ to flirtatious insurance salesman Walter Neff ]: “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.”
Walter: “How fast was I going, officer?”
Phyllis: “I’d say around 90.”
Phyllis, who has sex appeal to spare, is unhappily married to an oilman, and she embroils Walter in a scheme to kill her husband and collect his insurance. Fred MacMurray, cast against his usual good-guy type, excels as Neff, and Edward G. Robinson gives one of the best performances of his career as Barton Keyes, the insurance investigator whose “little man” inside him knows something fishy is going on.
Oh, but Phyllis. Whether she’s coming down stairs with “a honey of an anklet” on a shapely leg, giving Walter a sob story about her marriage, or finally confessing, “I’m rotten to the core,” she owns the screen. And Stanwyck is totally sincere in portraying Phyllis’ insincerity. It’s a performance for the ages. (A few years later, Stanwyck gave one that almost matched it, as a slightly more upscale but similarly immoral character in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”)
“Double Indemnity” was nominated for seven Oscars but came up empty. It lost the Best Picture race to “Going My Way.” It was wartime, and apparently the Academy wanted to honor inspiration rather than cynicism. “Going My Way” director Leo McCarey prevailed over Wilder in their category, and he and Chandler lost the screenplay Oscar to the inspirational flick’s writers, Frank Butler and Frank Cavett. But “Double Indemnity” has a better reputation today than just about any other film from that year; one of the few that could match it is the great noirish mystery “Laura.”
Stanwyck lost Best Actress to Ingrid Bergman for “Gaslight.” Bergman was great, and she’s one of this writer’s favorites, but no way I’d choose her over Stanwyck that year. Other contenders were perennial nominees Bette Davis (“Mr. Skeffington”) and Greer Garson (“Mrs. Parkington”), and the always excellent Claudette Colbert for “Since You Went Away.”
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Stanwyck’s final nomination came four years later in 1948 for “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Lucille Fletcher adapted her popular radio play of the same name for the screen, and Anatole Litvak directed. Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson, a wealthy invalid, bedridden and alone, who due to a crossing of phone lines overhears two men plotting a murder and eventually comes to believe she’s the intended victim. We follow Leona through her increasingly desperate attempts to get help.
The film has some weaknesses. Expanding her fairly short radio play, Fletcher added flashbacks of Leona, as a college student, meeting her future husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster). Stanwyck is gorgeous as ever, and she’s elegantly costumed by Edith Head, but it’s a bit hard to buy her as a college girl at age 41…plus no coed ever dressed like that. Similarly, Lancaster, at 35, is too old to be quite believable as the 20~something townie she falls for, although he’s definitely a hunk. And Leona is not very likable; she’s controlling and
rather irritating, neither a sympathetic heroine like Stella Dallas nor a delicious villainess like Phyllis Dietrichson. But Stanwyck gives the character her all, and she makes us feel Leona’s terror. There are also some nifty nourish touches when we see how Henry got involved in a criminal enterprise out of frustration at working for Leona’s father. Harold Vermilyea is charming as Waldo Evans, Henry’s reluctant, eccentric accomplice, and William Conrad is wonderfully menacing as a gangster named Morano.
Stanwyck was the film’s sole Oscar nominee, losing to Jane Wyman, a deserving winner for “Johnny Belinda.” Others in the stiff competition: Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Arc”, Olivia de Havilland for “The Snake Pit”, and Irene Dunne for “I Remember Mama.”
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Stanwyck finally got her Oscar in 1982 – not a competitive award, but an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. In her acceptance speech, she remembered her costar William Holden, who had died the previous year. Stanwyck was famous for her kindness to cast~mates and crew members on her films, and she had been enormously helpful to Holden, who grew into one of the screen’s best actors but was very green when they appeared together in “Golden Boy” in 1939. “I loved him very much and I miss him,” she said. “He always wished that I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.”
Our wish too, Barbara.
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