Among movie actresses of her generation, when melodrama was an accepted currency and bigger often meant better, Barbara Stanwyck was somehow earthier, less glamorous, far more real than most.
There was — and still is — such a thing as a “Stanwyck performance,” where beneath the artifice of the acting is a sly, driven and knowing presence that somehow connects to real life in ways the Hollywood dream factory could never dream up.
That quality made Stanwyck a unique actress in her time and contributes to her steadily growing status since her death in 1990. It's largely the focus of Dan Callahan's sharp, new, career-oriented biography, “Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman” (University Press of Mississippi, $35).
With so many details of Stanwyck's childhood and early career lost to time — the actress was loathe to talk about her upbringing — Callahan's book looks most acutely at her movies, her career choices and what they might reveal about the woman herself. A certain amount of speculation and biographical license might enter the equation, but largely Callahan's insights and instincts about his subject ring out as sympathetic, reasonable and well founded. He neatly lays out the biographical facts we know: Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens in 1907 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father disappeared early on and her mother was run over by a streetcar when Ruby was 3. Afterward, she was cared for by her older sister and later lived in a series of foster homes.
There's some evidence that she suffered from abuse, even after she was grown and married to vaudevillian Frank Fay, an alcoholic and anti-Semitic perhaps best known as the original Elwood P. Dowd of Broadway's “Harvey.” She also apparently had unhappy dalliances with certain gangsters during her days as a chorus girl and later with star Al Jolson. After a rocky start in early films like “Ten Cents a Dance,” Stanwyck found her acting muse in director Frank Capra, who seemed to get her raw, earthy appeal and cast her in a series of strong films from 1930-32 (including “The Miracle Woman,” “Forbidden” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”). Callahan duly notes Stanwyck's sharp instincts and tough-mindedness in going forward, choosing roles, scripts and directors that perfectly fit her personality, skills and
While Callahan covers Stanwyck's second marriage to Robert Taylor, which failed after his infidelity, and her romance with the much younger Robert Wagner, he mostly measures her life through her work. While many of her contemporaries saw their stars fade with age, Stanwyck always retained her passion for work, even in lesser roles.
Late in her life, she accepted roles that were clearly beneath her abilities (on the Aaron Spelling spinoff of “Dynasty,” which she quickly left). But, Callahan points out, she never gave a performance less than her best. She was, he notes, one of the first movie stars of her time to employ observed behavior rather than conventional acting techniques, and it's one of the things that make her acting seem modern and timeless.
Of her finest roles, Callahan writes: “Stanwyck loved the movies, even at their most extreme and artificial, yet she was the actress who most often reminded the movies of reality.”
Dennis King blogs about movies at projectionsmovieblog.com.