A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson; Simon and Schuster, 1,044 pages ($40). It’s one of those imponderable questions that can keep the most knowledgeable fans and students of American film arguing until ungodly hours of the night: Who is the greatest actress in the classic era of American film? You have, I think, to grant that after 1970 circumstances changed so much that the world of Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson doesn’t really belong in any comparison to the “dream factory” filmmaking that gave us Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. But if you have to acknowledge that Hepburn among them was inimitable, you also have to marvel at the fact that Barbara Stanwyck ALONE made so many films universally acclaimed as classics in the most important and original American film genres – film noir (“Double Indemnity”) and screwball comedy (“The Lady Eve,” “Ball of Fire”) – along with the “women’s pictures” that so gainfully and serially employed stalwarts in her sisterhood (“Stella Dallas,” “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”). As if that weren’t enough to be toting up, consider how much Frank Capra loved her and how often he made her his star in everything from “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” to “Meet John Doe.”
What this season has somewhat incredibly brought us is Volume One of a superbly written biography big enough to be worthy of a head of state, let alone an empress of American film.
Victoria Wilson is the vice president and senior editor of Knopf and the first volume of her biography of Stanwyck – which stops at 1940 – is altogether magnificent and, one might argue, different in kind from everything available about others in her sisterhood. And that’s true even though it stops in 1940 before so many of Stanwyck’s greatest achievements in “The Lady Eve,” “Meet John Doe” and “Double Indemnity” (read what director Billy Wilder has to say in tribute to her in Cameron Crowe’s conversations with him).
Said Capra “when she wasn’t in front of the camera, she was almost mousy … But when the cameras rolled, she turned into a huge person.” That huge person, it seems, is getting a biography worthy of her.
– Jeff Simon