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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers - 1946Barbara Stanwyck (July 16, 1907–January 20, 1990) was an American actress, a star of film and television, known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional with a strong screen presence, and a favorite of directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. After a short stint as a stage actress, she made over 80 films in 38 years in Hollywood, before turning her considerable talent to television.
Stanwyck was nominated for a competitive Academy Award four times, and won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. She was the recipient of honorary lifetime awards from the Motion Picture Academy, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Golden Globes, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Screen Actors Guild, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is ranked as the eleventh greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.
Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in New York City to Catherine Ann McPhee, a Canadian immigrant from Nova Scotia, and Byron E. Stevens, an American. When she was two, her mother, who was pregnant at the time, died after being pushed off a moving trolley by a drunk. By age four, her father had abandoned the family. She was raised in foster homes and by an elder sister, but began working at age 13, and was a fashion model and Ziegfeld Girl by the age of 15. She was reared in Brooklyn, New York, where she attended Erasmus Hall High School.
In 1926, Stanwyck began performing at the Hudson Theatre in the drama The Noose, which became one of the biggest hit plays of the season. She co-starred with actors Rex Cherryman and Wilfred Lucas. Cherryman and Stanwyck began a romantic relationship. The relationship was cut short however, when in 1928, Cherryman died at the age of 30 of septic poisoning while vacationing in Le Havre, France. Her performance in The Noose earned rave reviews, and she was summoned by film producer Bob Kane to make a screen test for his upcoming 1927 silent film Broadway Nights where she won a minor part of a fan dancer after losing out the lead role, because she couldn't cry during the screen test. This marked Stanwyck's first film appearance.
In 1926, a friend introduced Stanwyck (then known under her original name) to Willard Mack, who was casting his play The Noose. Asked to audition, she was hired on the spot. Willard thought a great deal of the actress and believed that to change her image, she needed a first class name, one that would stand out. He happened to notice a playbill for a play then running called Barbara Frietchie in which an actress named Jane Stanwyck appeared. He used this to come up with "Barbara Stanwyck" as Ruby's new stage name. She was an instant hit and he even rewrote the script to give her a bigger part.
Stanwyck starred in almost 100 films during her career and received four nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her roles in Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). In 1954, she appeared opposite Ronald Reagan in the western Cattle Queen of Montana. Perhaps her most famous role was in the 1941 film The Lady Eve, in which she starred with Henry Fonda. Stanwyck was also one of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939), although she wasn't given a screen test for the part. That year she appeared with Joel McCrea and Anthony Quinn in Cecil B. DeMille's western Union Pacific (1939).
Stanwyck was known for her accessibility and kindness to the backstage crew on any film set. Frank Capra said she was "destined to be beloved by all directors, actors, crews and extras. In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down." She received an Academy Honorary Award "for superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting" in 1982. Long time film critic Pauline Kael described Stanwyck's acting as "[she] seems to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera" and in reference to her early 1930s film work "...early talkies sentimentality ...only emphasizes Stanwyck's remarkable modernism."
When Stanwyck's film career declined in 1957, she moved to television. Her 1961–1962 series The Barbara Stanwyck Show was not a ratings success but earned the star her first Emmy Award. The 1965–1969 Western series The Big Valley on ABC made her one of the most popular actresses on television, winning her another Emmy. She was billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck," and her role as head of a frontier family was likened to that of Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene in the long-running NBC series Bonanza. Stanwyck's costars included Richard Long (who had been in Stanwyck's 1953 film All I Desire), Peter Breck, Linda Evans, and Lee Majors.
Years later, Stanwyck earned her third Emmy for The Thorn Birds. In 1985, she made three guest appearances on the hit primetime soap opera Dynasty prior to the launch of its ill-fated spin-off series The Colbys in which she starred alongside Charlton Heston, Stephanie Beacham and Katharine Ross. Stanwyck remained with the series for only one season (it only lasted for two), and her role as Constance Colby Patterson would prove to be her last. Ironically, Earl Hamner Jr. (producer of The Waltons) had initially wanted Stanwyck for the lead role of Angela Channing on the successful 1980s soap opera, Falcon Crest, but she turned it down. The role ultimately went to Jane Wyman.
William Holden always credited her with saving his career when they co-starred in Golden Boy. They remained lifelong friends. Stanwyck and Holden were presenting the Best Sound Oscar. Holden paused to pay a special tribute to Stanwyck. Shortly after Holden's death, Stanwyck returned the favor at an awards ceremony, with an emotional reference to "her golden boy."
In 1973, she was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1987 the American Film Institute awarded her a televised AFI Life Achievement Award. Stanwyck has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.
Her first husband was actor Frank Fay. They were married on August 26, 1928. On December 5, 1932 they adopted a son, Dion Anthony "Tony" Fay, who was one month old. (He and Stanwyck eventually became estranged.) The marriage was a troubled one; Fay's successful career on Broadway did not translate to the big screen, whereas Stanwyck achieved Hollywood stardom, after a short bumpy start. Also, Fay reportedly did not shy away from physical confrontations with his young wife, especially when he was inebriated. Some film historians claim that the marriage was the basis for A Star is Born. The couple divorced on December 30, 1935. Rumors of Stanwyck's sexuality have lingered for decades, with it being said that she was in fact lesbian or bisexual, and that she'd had an affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead, during the same time frame that Bankhead was having her affair with actress Patsy Kelly. While such rumors were never confirmed by Stanwyck, similar stories about her are featured in books about lesbians in Hollywood.
Stanwyck and actor Robert Taylor began living together. Their 1939 marriage was arranged with the help of the studio, a common practice in Hollywood's golden age. She and Taylor enjoyed their time together outdoors during the early years of their marriage, and were the proud owners of many acres of prime West Los Angeles property. Their large ranch and home in the Mandeville Canyon section of Brentwood in Los Angeles is to this day referred to by locals as the old "Robert Taylor ranch".
Taylor would have several affairs during the marriage, including one with Ava Gardner. Stanwyck was rumored to have attempted suicide when she learned of Taylor's fling with Lana Turner. She ultimately filed for divorce in 1950 when a starlet made her romance with Taylor public. The decree was granted on February 21, 1951. Even after the divorce, they still acted together in Stanwyck's last feature film The Night Walker (1964). Stanwyck was reportedly devastated when many of his old letters and photos were lost in a house fire. She never remarried, collecting alimony of 15 percent of Taylor's salary until his death in 1969.
Stanwyck reportedly had an affair with actor Robert Wagner, whom she met on the set of Titanic. Wagner, who was 22 years old at the time, and Stanwyck, who as 45, enjoyed a four-year romance, as described in Wagner's 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart. Stanwyck eventually broke off the relationship.
Stanwyck's retirement years were active, with charity work done completely out of the limelight. She became somewhat reclusive following a robbery in her home while she was present; her assailants pushed her into a closet, but she suffered no serious physical injury.
She died of congestive heart failure, emphysema and chronic obstructive lung disease at St. John's Hospital, in Santa Monica, California in 1990.
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