Barbara Stanwyck Is the Highest Paid Woman in America, Can Take Any Film in the Last 15 Minutes, & Gets an Honorary Oscar.
Great Oscar Injustices: Barbara Stanwyck (Part III)
March 3, 2019 Updated January 2, 2022
Welcome back to week four of my Oscar’s Greatest Injustices series.
This is the final of three posts on Barbara Stanwyck in the series.
Ruby Stevens Had Made It!
Before we move on to Barbara’s life and work from the 1950s onward, it’s important to note two things:
One, by 1944, Barbara Stanwyck was the highest paid woman in America. The government listed her earnings that year as $400,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $6.3 million today. Ruby Stevens had “made it” indeed.
Second, Barbara was so popular by the late 1930s-early 1940s, babies were named after her: the name “Barbara” wasn’t terribly common before Barbara Stanwyck became a star. The name gained popularity during the peak years of Barbara’s career, then dipped in popularity again after her years of major stardom.
1950s Low for Barbara Stanwyck
Unfortunately, the 1950s started out on a personal low for Barbara. Her marriage to Robert Taylor, seemingly so perfect for 11 years, ended in divorce in February 1951, at Taylor’s request. A combination of Taylor’s extramarital affairs and the differing career goals of each spouse were major contributors to the split, though Taylor and Barbara remained friends. Barbara always maintained that Robert Taylor was the love of her life, and she didn’t marry again.
Adding more heartache to her personal life, Barbara’s relationship with her adopted son, Dion—known as “Tony” by this point—had grown rocky. It seems both Barbara and Tony bore responsibility for the misunderstandings and strains that characterized their relationship as Tony grew to adulthood. In 1951, Barbara and Tony became estranged, and rarely saw each other between 1951 and Barbara’s death in 1990.
Barbara Stanwyck Films from the 1950s
She may have had some truly terrible things to cope with in her personal life, but Barbara made some killer films in the 1950s, such as:
2. Clash By Night (1952)
Also starring a very young Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn once shared that Barbara was one of the only stars of the previous generation who was kind to her. Barbara took Marilyn under wing on this film, and defended her against the at times cruel and impatient comments the crew made about Marilyn.
4. Titanic (1953)
Barbara stars with Clifton Webb in the original film about the tragic ship. Also starring a young Robert Wagner, with whom Barbara was supposedly involved with off screen for four years.
Adapting at 50
In 1957, Barbara turned 50, and found it increasingly difficult to find good film roles. In the 1960s she opened up about the difficulties of being a middle-aged actress in Hollywood:
“They don’t normally write parts for women my age because America is now a country of youth. We’ve matured and moved on. The past belongs to the past.”
Always a fan of westerns, a genre that is generally kinder to aging actresses, Barbara did good work, and her own stunts, in such westerns as Trooper Hook and Forty Guns, in which she was thrown from and dragged by a horse.
Barbara differed greatly from her peers in regards to television: she realized TV was here to stay, and that it could offer more roles to a woman her age than films. As such, the list of Barbara’s television credits from the late 1950s to the end of her life is extensive. She most notably played Victoria Barkley in the popular television western series “The Big Valley,” from 1965-1969.
"Put Me in the Last Fifteen Minutes"
Barbara continued working steadily in television as she aged, becoming an even more poignant actress at age 76 than she was at the prime of her Hollywood career.
As Barbara accurately said of her acting abilities in her later years:
Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture, and I don’t care what happened before. I don’t even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing—I’ll take it in those 15 minutes.
Barbara Stanwyck's Honorary Oscar and Legacy
In 1982, Barbara finally got her Oscar. It was an honorary Oscar, and it meant the world to her. In true Barbara Stanwyck style, she graciously and gracefully walked to the podium to receive the award, still a slip of a woman, and spent her acceptance speech thanking others, giving credit for the award to everyone else she worked with, and joking that:
“I tried many times to get this award but I didn’t make it.”
Talk about class, even in her moment of triumph, that was Barbara.
Barbara passed away on January 20, 1990 in Santa Monica. Her wish that no funeral service be held was honored, and her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, where she made so many of her beloved Western films.
Barbara Stanwyck believed that if someone from her disadvantaged background could rise above their circumstances and accomplish their dreams, anyone could. She’s proof that the American Dream is real. As Barbara’s character asks in Golden Boy (1939),
“You take a chance the day you’re born. Why stop now?”
Academy Award recognition or not, Barbara Stanwyck never stopped delivering world-class performances in every one of her films. Her great screen legacy and remarkable life will continue to inspire.