The twenty-year-old chorus girl had just been hired for her first dramatic role on Broadway, “But I can’t act,” she told the director. “Good,” he replied. “Just act naturally.” Somehow that chorus girl managed to take those three simple words and turn them into a lifetime and a career unparalleled in its emotional honesty, diversity and skill. This is the achievement of Barbara Stanwyck.
Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, New York, she was orphaned by the age of four. Raised in various foster homes, her flights of imagination were her closest companion. When her older sister Millie returned from the road in a New York revue, Ruby was backstage at every show. At the age of fifteen she became a dancer in various nightclubs and revues, and with the Ziegfeld Follies. Her first dramatic role on Broadway — in the 1926 play THE NOOSE — started her on the journey she would follow the rest of her life. After a small role in the silent film BROADWAY NIGHTS she returned to Broadway in the play BURLESQUE. She was now a star, and Hollywood called.
After her first two — self-admitted — disastrous films she was cast by Frank Capra as the “party girl” in LADIES OF LEISURE and suddenly displayed all the vibrancy, toughness and vulnerability that would mark her performances from then on.
The qualities seen in that first film for Capra may have come across as a mess of contradictions in lesser hands. But through Stanwyck’s honesty and ability they became perfectly wedded, both immediate and real. Whether working within the structure of a comedy or melodrama, a woman’s film or Western, the actress has distinguished every role she has chosen to undertake through this understanding of life’s contradictions. Always of her time, yet always strikingly modern, she has simultaneously shown us the hardened woman and the vulnerable young girl in TEN CENTS A DANCE, GOLDEN BOY and REMEMBER THE NIGHT. The vulgar and noble mother of STELLA DALLAS. The bitter and romantic heroine of CLASH BY NIGHT. Preston Sturges seemed to sum up her “lady and the tramp” quality best when he wrote THE LADY EVE specifically for Stanwyck. Her dual role as the cynical con woman with a touch of class and the British noblewoman with a hint of the gutter is a perfect amalgamation of the unique Stanwyck persona. When she advises Henry Fonda on women, “The best ones aren’t as good as you think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad — not nearly as bad,” this could well be the actress speaking of that special insight which illuminated each of her performances.
Known for her professionalism and generosity, Barbara Stanwyck has always been a favorite of both her crews and co-stars, many of who credit her care and guidance as being responsible for their entire careers. Her determined independence allowed her to move from studio to studio, working for such great and varied directors as Fritz Lang and George Stevens, Vidor and Hawks, Ford, Wilder and Sirk. Yet rather than mold or remake her into their images, each seemed to delight in finding an actress with the range, skills and depth to express his particular vision in her own unique way.
In a sense she has done the same for all of us. As author John Kobal observed, “You knew she was regular people, which is to say what you hoped regular people were like.” In both her life and her work, Barbara Stanwyck has presented us with a vision of a world we immediately recognize, a vision of who we are and who somewhere inside we hope to be.
For this gift and for her great artistry, the Trustees of The American Film Institute voted the fifteenth Life Achievement Award to Barbara Stanwyck.