STANWYCK by Axel Madsen


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 This first biography of Barbara Stanwyck since her death in 1990 is scrupulously researched and fair, if a bit stilted. Stanwyck had a well-deserved reputation as an actor's actor, a consummate professional who submerged herself in her work--a star, but never a prima donna. That reputation was wrought at great emotional cost, as Madsen (Chanel, 1990, etc.) reports. Orphaned as a young child, Stanwyck bounced among a variety of relatives and foster homes. She grew up yearning for security but also for a job in show business. A chorus girl at 15, she experienced the proverbial meteoric rise to stardom, enjoying success on Broadway before moving west to try her hand at film. At the center of her adult life, though, were two tumultuous and unhappy marriages: The first, to Frank Fay, one-time king of vaudeville, was wrecked by his drinking and jealousy of her successful career (serving as a model for the first version of A Star Is Born); the second, to Robert Taylor, was equally unsuccessful, perhaps because Taylor was gay. She also proved a terrible failure as a mother to her adopted son, Dion. Stanwyck found refuge from personal unhappiness in acting, and she left behind a body of work that is among the most distinguished of any American actress of the studio era, including Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and Frank Capra's Meet John Doe. Madsen is appropriately reticent in his speculations on Stanwyck's private life, which she guarded almost obsessively, and astute in his assessment of her work. He is somewhat too apologetic for the unsavory role she and Taylor played in the Communist witch hunts of the '40s and '50s. Unfortunately, as her career winds down, the book does too. A comprehensive and intelligently balanced look at a great actress and star, marred by rather ordinary writing. (32 pages of photos, not seen)

Pub Date: July 13th, 1994
ISBN: 0-06-017997-X
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1994