Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences Tribeca Film Festival Matches George Lucas with Stephen Colbert: “I’m gonna tear you a new one, George" Tribeca Film Festival Matches George Lucas with Stephen Colbert: “I’m gonna tear you a new one, George" 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO) 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Book Review: 'A Life of Barbara Stanwyck,' at 1000 Pages, Builds a Living Thing

Thompson on Hollywood By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood November 25, 2013 at 1:16PM

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson ends abruptly in 1940. Still ahead are “The Lady Eve” and “Ball of Fire,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity,” not to mention more than 40 other movies and four years as the matriarch of a sprawling 19th century ranch on the television series, “The Big Valley.” Yet the book, which takes Stanwyck from birth in 1907 to the age of 37 and stardom in a town she hated for the “pretense” of its “so self-important” people, is exactly 1000 pages long if you include its meticulous stage, film, radio and television chronologies and notes on sources.
5
Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

What was unexpected to me was how successful Stanwyck was during those early years, eventually reaching the magnificent salary of $100 a week.   Men and women of the musical revues and of the theatre saw something out of the ordinary in her. The master director and producer David Belasco told her she didn’t know how to walk and to go to the zoo and watch the animals. She went to the Bronx Zoo and practiced the panther’s proud and purposeful stride until it became natural for her. Belasco also renamed Ruby Stevens Barbara Stanwyck just before her Broadway debut in a crime melodrama, “The Noose.”  When she signed the contract, she had to be told how to spell her new name.

Cast as a cabaret dancer secretly in love with a gangster, she was given a major third act scene during the out-of-town tryout. Broadway critics noticed the girl who begged to take the gangster’s body after he was hanged because “he ain’t got no relatives” to give him a funeral. The Sun said Miss Barbara Stanwyck “played it well enough to make first nighters wipe tears from their eyes.” The New York Times looked forward to “the further good work of Miss Dorothy Stanwyck.”

Within a few years, that further good work would be in the movies.  But, first, there was a starring role as the hot-tempered wife of a burlesque comedian in “Burlesque.”  Alexander Woollcott called the play “no account” but described Miss Stanwyck as “touching and true.” She had asked for $300 a week.  She was barely 20 years old.

“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel - True 1907-1940” does detail her life -- in particular her marriage to the supremely successful vaudeville comedian Frank Fay and, despite her loyalty, its eventual disintegration. Unsuccessful in Hollywood, Fay became a heavy drinker and then an alcoholic. And alcohol began to make him violent. “I was nothing until Fay came along, and I would have been nothing a great deal longer if he had never come along,” Stanwyck once said. But, finally, she began to be frightened -- for herself and for Dion, the son they had adopted. Fay began to hit her, and he hurled three-year-old Dion into the swimming pool. The day he knocked her down a staircase, she took Dion and fled, leaving behind the four-acre Brentwood estate into which Fay had poured almost all of the $1 million Stanwyck had made during her six years in Hollywood.

But the book is also a life of Hollywood during the 1930s and America during the Depression and the way the dream factory and reality interact. If the detail is sometimes overwhelming, I am not surprised. Vicky Wilson, who is now a senior editor and vice-president at Alfred Knopf, was the editor of my first book, “The Making of the Wizard of Oz,” and, after I turned in the first 10,000 words, she sent me back to my typewriter for more depth, more details, more depth.

There will be many more details in Volume 2 of Barbara Stanwyck’s life. One thing will not change, however. To the end, Stanwyck never saw herself as more important than the unimportant people with whom she worked. As she says over and over at different times and in different words, “In Hollywood you are loved for success and success alone.”  And “I am a star today, but give me one or two bad pictures and Hollywood will consider me a flop again.  It isn’t what you do or have done that counts here. It’s what happens. That’s why I have never understood the minds of the picture brains. And never will.”

"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck" is published by Simon and Schuster.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Barbara Stanwyck, Books


E-Mail Updates