Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence- Barbara Stanwyck, 1986

by Philip Berk September 9, 2019
Actress Barbara Stanwyck, Golden Globe winner, Cecil  B. deMille Award recipient, with Kirk Douglas, 1986

hfpa archives

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award,  per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for  “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.

Barbara Stanwyck has to be the most enigmatic actress that ever won the Cecil B. deMille award.

She is widely revered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, but maybe just one of her films, Double Indemnity, deserves to be called a true classic. Anchored by her scorching performance, no movie lover has ever been able to shake that film noir. Although her sophisticated cardsharp in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve is a close second.

Her first marriage to controlling nebbish Frank Fay is hard to forgive. He was a blatant antisemite, period. She loved him despite his failings. 

She never made another film with Billy Wilder. But why? They were both under contract to Paramount.

On the other hand, she had a long relationship with Frank Capra, to whom she gave some of her best performances. She was a major star all through the 50s but ended her career as Queen of Television playing the same role on The Big Valley for four years and winning an Emmy in the process.

For her devotees, it wasn’t a letdown. But for the rest of us, she will always be Phyllis Dietrichson, the scheming adulteress in Double Indemnity, whom Billy Wilder slyly named after his favorite German actress.

Stanwyck was born into poverty. Left an orphan at an early age, she was brought up by her eldest sister. She dropped out of school at 14, supported herself in menial jobs, and eventually fulfilled her ambition to go on the stage when she was hired as a chorus girl for The Ziegfield Follies.

She followed that with an actual role as a chorus girl in The Noose which ran for eight months which led to her being cast in Burlesque, for which she received rave reviews and a film offer. That’s when she met Frank Fay who was then a Broadway headliner, and he took over guiding her career.

Her first sound film was The Locked Door and then, under contract (a four-picture deal) to Columbia, she made her first film with Frank Capra. It was Ladies of Leisure, and it made her a star. She followed that with indelible performances, one after the other, in Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Night Nurse, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden, and Shopworn, working with A list directors Capra, William Wellman, and Roy Del Ruth, and all within a span of two years. Catch those titles on TCM and you’ll be astonished how amazingly modern she was, even in her first Hollywood films.

Fay was able to secure a better deal for her at Warner Bros., a step-up from Columbia’s “poverty row,’ although it was her third film with Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, made for Columbia which elevated her to the ranks of Hollywood’s top stars. 

At Warners she was equally impressive playing older in So Big, a performance which must have inspired Sam Goldwyn to cast her as the mother in the classic soaper Stella Dallas, in which she gives one of her two greatest performances - certainly her most uncompromising - playing a cheap dowdy woman, even though at the time she was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. The sacrifice was worth it. She received her first Oscar nomination for that role.

After that, she freelanced at all the major studios. No longer married to Fay, she was impressive in George Stevens Annie Oakley at RKO, met and later married her sexually repressed costar Robert Taylor in My Brother's Wife at MGM, was outstanding in John Cromwell’s Banjo on my Knee at Fox, was miscast in John Ford’s film of O’Casey classic, The Plough and the Stars at RKO, and was reunited with Taylor in Fox’s This is My Affair, not one of her best.

Then followed her five greatest years when she was the highest-paid woman in the United States. In quick succession she made Cecil B. deMille's Union Pacific for Paramount, Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy for Columbia, Preston Sturges’ Remember the Night and The Lady Eve for Paramount, Capra’s Meet John Doe for Warner Bros, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire again for Goldwyn, and Julian Duvivier's Flesh and Fantasy for Universal, all among the best movies of those years, culminating  in her Oscar-nominated role in Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which resulted in her signing a long term contract with Warner Bros.

Although not a productive union, some of the movies she made there are today among her most well-loved particularly Christmas in Connecticut and My Reputation. She quit the studio in a huff when Jack Warner wouldn’t cast her in The Fountainhead, even though she was the one who had persuaded the studio to buy the Ayn Rand novel. When Jack gave the coveted lead to newcomer Patricia Neal, she tore up her contract by mutual consent and found a new home at Paramount where she made The File on Thelma Jordan, and Sorry Wrong Number (her third Oscar nomination) for her old boss at Warners, Hal Wallis, who too had left the company over a spat with Jack Warner, kindred spirits, I guess.

After that, there was almost a decade of freelancing, appearing in run of the mill studio product. The only two decent films she made in this period was Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and Robert Wise’s Executive Suite, but even in those, she was overshadowed by her costars.

Now approaching sixty she made a wise decision to try television where she regained her former glory. After The Big Valley she played supporting roles in a mini-series The Thorn Birds, which won her her only Golden Globe, and two long-running soaps Dynasty and The Colbys. Her last film appearance was in Walk on the Wild Side, which earned her good reviews.

Complementing her Cecil B. deMille award for lifetime achievement, she received honorary awards from the Academy and the American Film Institute.

Sadly her personal life didn’t mirror her artistic success. Besides her regrettable marriage to Fay, her ten-year marriage to Taylor, more a union of mentor and pupil, insisted on by Louis B.Mayer who didn’t like the idea of his top star living in sin, ended in divorce. Taylor remarried and had children. She never did. A son she and Fay adopted was estranged from her most of her life. After Taylor’s death, she confided to others that he was the love of her life.

She died in 1990 at the age of 82. Although one of Hollywood’s most well thought of stars, she requested no funeral. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, CA at her request.