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Underrated Actors: Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck, an underrated actress who deserves more praise

Unfortunately, for me, Barbara Stanwyck doesn’t get enough attention in modern discussions regarding great Hollywood Golden Age actresses. Well, today I will fix this. In this article, I will go over Stanwyck’s origins and explain why she is an underappreciated film figure. Before finally going through 5 of her best roles.

Who was Barbara Stanwyck?

Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, New York in 1907, Stanwyck’s childhood was not easy. Her mother died when she was four and her father subsequently walked out on the family. She was then placed in several foster homes. After quitting school at 14 she found work as a dancer and a chorus girl. Then in 1926, she was cast in the broadway play The Noose which brought her into the spotlight. Afterwards, she starred in the show Burlesque before moving to Hollywood. There she had some minor film roles but she received her big break by being cast in Ladies of Leisure. She went on to work with many great directors (Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk) and stars (William Holden, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper) across film and TV until her death in 1990.

Why is She Underrated?

As mentioned above Stanwyck’s name seems to be lost in general conversation when it comes to the great Golden Age actresses. Like Malcolm McDowell, if she is mentioned often it is only for one film (Double Indemnity). And many seem to view Stanwyck as a star rather than an actress.

But across her nearly 60-year career, there are many aspects to appreciate. Stanwyck was always a professional who was committed to getting the best from her costars and herself. She acted across many genres including, westerns, romance, comedy, noir, melodrama, and more. And at a time when many actresses could only inhabit certain stereotyped roles, Stanwyck played a variety of strong and determined women who felt real. Unfortunately, she received comparatively little high-profile recognition for much of her work outside of nominations and honorary awards. So today we are going to direct you to some great Barbara Stanwyck projects, to help more people appreciate her contribution to entertainment.

5 Great Barbara Stanwyck Performances

1. Stella Dallas – Stella Dallas

As Stella, Stanwyck showcases the working-class toughness that would define much of her career. But she also gets to demonstrate her emotional range. While we follow Stella’s journey through marriage, separation, and motherhood we laugh and cry equally because of Stanwyck’s wonderfully reserved and agonisingly authentic performance. For me, this is Stanwyck’s best work.

Barbara Stanwyck in her best role // Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

2. Sugarpuss O’Shea -Ball of Fire

Undoubtedly Stanwyck’s best 1941 role (that year she also starred in The Lady Eve and the underrated Meet John Doe). Her comedic delivery as the brash nightclub singer who captures the attention of researchers and gangsters is pitch-perfect. Her chemistry with Gary Cooper is enthralling and her screen presence magnetic. This movie truly demonstrates Stanwyck’s star power.

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper make a fantastic on-screen couple // Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

3. Phyllis Dietrichson – Double Indemnity

Stanwyck is unforgettable as the femme fatale who manipulates hapless salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband for a massive insurance payout. Stanwyck and MacMurray’s chemistry is electric, and her performance is so good that you are never sure if Phyllis is being sincere or lying. It’s the role she will forever be remembered for.

Barbara Stanwyck is the quintessential femme fatale character // Credit: Paramount Pictures
Barbara Stanwyck is the quintessential femme fatale character // Credit: Paramount Pictures

4. Norma Vale – There’s Always Tomorrow

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray reunite in their fourth collaboration. This time Clifford Groves (MacMurray) longs to escape his stale marriage to be with the more exciting Norma (Stanwyck). The actors’ chemistry is still amazing in this more tender outing. But Stanwyck stands out. She invests Norma with a sense of longing, making the couple’s intimacy feel natural and the ending even more tragic.

But Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray make a better on-screen couple // Credit: Universal Pictures
But Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray make a better on-screen couple // Credit: Universal Pictures

5. Victoria Barkley – The Big Valley

While many of her contemporaries looked down on TV Stanwyck used it to show that, despite her increasing age, she could still be as tough as anyone else in the industry. As the ranching Barkley family matriarch, she commanded authority and respect. And her character became an icon to many.

Barbara Stanwyck shines as the matriarch of the Barkley family // Credit: ABC
Barbara Stanwyck shines as the matriarch of the Barkley family // Credit: ABC

With so many great roles it was hard to narrow it down to simply 5. So please check out some of Stanwyck’s other work and let us know your favourites.

Also Read: Underrated Actors: Malcolm McDowell

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker from Chesterfield. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.