Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens; July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress, model, and dancer. A stage, film, and television star, she was known during her 60-year career as a consummate and versatile professional for her strong, realistic screen presence. A favorite of directors including Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra, she made 85 films in 38 years before turning to television.
Stanwyck made her debut on stage in the chorus as a Ziegfeld girl in 1923, at age 16, and within a few years was acting in plays. Her first lead role, which was in the hit Burlesque (1927), gained praise and established her as a Broadway star. In 1929, she began acting in talking pictures, receiving her major break when Frank Capra chose her for his romantic drama Ladies of Leisure (1930), which led to additional leading roles. The ones that further launched her career and increased her profile were Night Nurse, Baby Face, and the controversial The Bitter Tea of General Yen.
In 1937, she had the title role in Stella Dallas and received her first Academy Award nomination for best actress. In 1939, she starred as the lead in Union Pacific the first ever film to ever win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1941, she starred in two successful screwball comedies: Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper, and The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda. She received her second Academy Award nomination for Ball of Fire, and in the decades since its release The Lady Eve has come to be regarded as a comedic classic with Stanwyck’s performance called one of the best in American comedy. Other successful films during this era of her career are Meet John Doe (1940) and You Belong to Me (1941), both of which where she again starred alongside Cooper and Fonda respectively.
By 1944, Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States. She starred alongside Fred MacMurray in the seminal film noir Double Indemnity (1944), playing the smoldering wife who persuades MacMurray’s insurance salesman to kill her husband. Described as one of the ultimate portrayals of villainy, it is widely thought that Stanwyck should have won the Academy Award for Best Actress rather than being just nominated. In 1945, she starred in the hit film Christmas in Connecticut. She later received critical acclaim for her performance in the 1947 film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. She garnered her last Oscar nomination for her lead performance as an invalid wife overhearing her own murder plot in the thriller film noir, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
Throughout the 1950s, she starred in a long string of highly successful films and they are Titanic (1953), All I Desire (1953), Executive Suite (1954) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). But her career declined soon after the end of the decade, therefore she moved into television in the 1960s, where she won three Emmy Awards – for The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), the western series The Big Valley (1966), and miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983).
She received an Honorary Oscar in 1982, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1986 and was the recipient of several other honorary lifetime awards. She was ranked as the 11th greatest female star of classic American cinema by the American Film Institute. An orphan at the age of four, and partially raised in foster homes, she always worked; one of her directors, Jacques Tourneur, said of Stanwyck, “She only lives for two things, and both of them are work.”
Stanwyck died on January 20, 1990, aged 82, of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She had indicated that she wanted no funeral service. In accordance with her wishes, her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California, where she had made some of her western films.