The toughest broad in Hollywood gets the Robert Caro treatment.
It’s perhaps beside the point to say that Knopf vice president and senior editor Wilson’s massive biography of Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990) makes too much of its subject. The first of two volumes, it weighs in at more than 1,000 pages and only takes the subject up to the age of 33. This first installment is as much about the legendary actress’s life as her times: the lavish world of Hollywood as well as the Depression-era reality of people who flocked to see their favorite stars. By placing Stanwyck in this larger context, Wilson seems to be suggesting that she was a key figure of the 20th century, which is, at the least, a bit of a stretch. However, Wilson provides a very real sense of Hollywood as experienced from the inside. Born Ruby Stevens and orphaned at an early age, Stanwyck emerges here as every bit the scrapper she played on screen, an all-consuming whirlwind whose co-stars would be so awestruck that they would often forget their own lines. She wasn’t necessarily the classic beauty; she was the sexy gal who said, “Now get out!” In married life, her toughness varied. She loyally suffered at the hands of her mentor, Frank Fay; on the rebound, she both nurtured and dominated Robert Taylor. While Wilson can lay on the research a bit thick—no salary or household expense gets past her—she deeply scrutinizes every Stanwyck performance up to 1940, letting us see the actress work and, in some key roles—e.g., The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Stella Dallas—really sweat. The author also includes an extensive, mostly helpful series of appendices comprising stage, film, radio and TV chronologies.
Despite its overreach, this is an ambitious portrait of a young actress whose best films are still ahead of her—a first volume that should whet readers’ appetite for the second, provided they have the stamina to stay with it.