Barbara Stanwyck’s hardworking rise to Hollywood stardom

Cover00Geoffrey O'Brien at Bookforum:

The career is well known, or at least available for inspection. The life was, deliberately, more opaque. Some actors disport or destroy themselves in spectacular ways; some go to war; some go into politics. Stanwyck just worked. While she drew some tabloid attention with the breakup of her marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, by Hollywood standards her life lacked scandal. It did not lack suffering, however, least of all in its earliest phases. The most absorbing chapters of Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907–1940, the first volume of what will be a two-part biography, lay out the retrievable details of that early life, and the process by which Ruby Stevens of Flatbush, Brooklyn, established herself by the age of twenty-four as “a new sensation in the world of pictures.” These first episodes can be taken as a key to later performances, as if in acting Stanwyck had replayed, with multiple variants and alternative outcomes, the circumstances that shaped her. She found something better than acting school to inform her work. As Wilson writes, “She was able to use her shoals of loss and regret, her feelings of being an orphan, the outsider . . . and focus these things, adapt them, to create women on the screen whom audiences admired and knew to be true.”

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