Feminists of Film, Round Three:
“Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most overlooked, underrated stars of Hollywood’s golden age, so it isn’t surprising that her contributions to feminism in film are overlooked as well. When one thinks of feminists in classic films, people like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn almost always come to mind (and rightfully so!); but, Barbara Stanwyck should not be passed over. She spent her entire career seeking roles portraying strong, independent women. It was her desire to play such characters that landed her in Westerns frequently. Stanwyck felt that Westerns were the greatest genre for strong female characters. When asked what kind of films she enjoyed making the most, her answer was always Westerns. Her first Western was Annie Oakley, where she matched Preston Foster’s character shot for shot. Stanwyck went on to appear in 12 Western films, not to mention numerous TV guest appearances on shows like Rawhide and Wagon Train. And let’s not forget the mother of them all—The Big Valley—where Stanwyck portrayed Victoria Barkley, an intelligent, headstrong widow who presided over the Barkley ranch . Stanwyck was very proud of the series, especially since it was the first Western television program centered on a female character. Stanwyck herself says it best. When asked about her Big Valley character, she answered “I want to play a real frontier woman, not one of those crinoline-covered things you see in most Westerns. Some producers think women did nothing in those days but keep house and have children. But, if you read your history, they did a lot more than that. They were in cattle drives. They were there.”
Westerns weren’t the only genre where Stanwyck was able to portray a powerful woman. She had incredible range, appearing in virtually every form of film imaginable. Another area where Stanwyck excelled was Film Noir. One would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect femme fatal than Barbara Stanwyck’s conniving murderess Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Stanwyck was a pioneer for women her entire career. Although she started off playing oppressed depression heroines, it wasn’t long before she started seeking bolder, more powerful roles. Perhaps the earliest example is Lily Powers in Baby Face—a story about a woman who sleeps her way to the top of a major corporation and would stop at nothing to get what she wanted—after growing up with a father who made her life miserable and surrounded her with “rotten stinking men” her entire life. Stanwyck was also the first actress to portray an openly lesbian character on screen—Jo Courtney in Walk on the Wild Side—another fact that is virtually unknown today.
Barbara herself was not unlike the characters she so often portrayed. Whether she put a little of herself into her characters or whether she put a little of her characters into herself I’m not sure, but Barbara Stanwyck was an incredibly powerful woman who dominated in a man’s industry. She gained non-exclusive contracts fairly early in her career, allowing her to work independently rather than for one particular studio. This gave her quite a bit of control over what roles she would play. This independence was rare among actresses of the time, and it eventually led to her being the highest paid woman in America in 1944. She was also unwilling to allow anyone dictate how she would look. For example, Stanwyck dyed her hair only once, for her role in Stella Dallas. Even when she was pressured to cover her prematurely greying hair she refused, and her glorious silver hair eventually became her trademark in her later years. Stanwyck was a very intelligent woman who was able to shape her the way she wanted. Empowering women was very important to her and to this day women everywhere can relate to her characters. Whether it’s her portrayal of a high-spirited reporter, a smart-talking nightclub singer, a zany socialite, or a high-ridin’ Cattle Queen, Barbara Stanwyck’s contributions to feminism in film will always withstand the test of time.”
(Written by Guest Blogger Florence Fallon)