I've always though that the Academy Awards were overrated. Trying to pick the best film, or the best film performances, is like trying to pick the best painting of the year, or the best short story of the year. How does one even define best? What you and I may consider the best movie of the year will be totally different than from what millions of other people think.
Whenever I get a chance to diss the Oscars, I usually point out that the woman who is generally considered the greatest all-around film actress in cinema history, Barbara Stanwyck, never won a competitive Oscar. How relevant can the Academy Awards be if Stanwyck, of all people, never won one?
So when I was invited to participate in the Oscars Snubs Blogathon, I felt that Stanwyck's failure to win one of the little golden men would be a perfect subject to write about. I felt that I could really go to town on how silly and nearsighted the Oscars actually are.
Then I started to do some research on when Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award, and who she was up against...and I started to realize that this was going to be a lot more complicated than I expected. There's more to it than just declaring "The Oscars are stupid!!"
Before we analyze each of Stanwyck's nominations, let's do some background on her overall Hollywood career and the other actresses Stanwyck was annually competing against.
Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award exactly four times. No doubt many of you are thinking, "Only four times??" Stanwyck had a long career starring in theatrical films (roughly 1927 to 1964), and many of the movies she appeared in are well-regarded classics.
Consider, though, that Stanwyck's movie career coincided with the era now know as "The Golden Age of Hollywood". During Stanwyck's height as a movie actress, her contemporaries were some of the most iconic leading ladies of all time. Let's take a look at some of these women and how many Best Actress nominations (not wins) they each racked up during the time Stanwyck appeared in motion pictures:
Ingrid Bergman--5 nominations
Bette Davis--11 nominations
Olivia de Havilland--4 nominations
Irene Dunne--5 nominations
Greta Garbo--4 nominations
Greer Garson--7 nominations
Katherine Hepburn--9 nominations
As you can see, if you were a movie actress during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and you were not one of the women listed above, you would have been lucky to get any nomination, let alone a win. Barbara Stanwyck had to deal with some major competition during her Hollywood heyday. The term "Woman's Picture" may be politically incorrect, but the fact is that far more movies were tailored to leading actresses during Hollywood's Golden Age. A powerhouse performer like Stanwyck would have cleaned up come awards time in today's age....but in her own time Barbara had to match up with standout female roles year after year after year.
Being a film actress in the 30s, 40s, and 50s would have given you a lot better chance to play some great roles....but it also would have made it harder for you to get awarded for playing those roles.
STANWYCK'S FOUR NOMINATIONS
Now let's examine Barbara Stanwyck's Best Actress nominations, in chronological order.
Barbara garnered her first Oscar nomination for the 1937 movie year, in the title role of STELLA DALLAS. Here are the nominees she was up against:
Luise Rainer (winner) in THE GOOD EARTH
Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH
Greta Garbo in CAMILLE
Janet Gaynor in A STAR IS BORN
Needless to say, 1937 was a tough year to win the Best Actress Oscar. You could easily make a case for any one of the nominees. The blue-collar Stella is one of Stanwyck's most well-known characterizations, and many of her fans consider it to be her best overall performance. According to Victoria Wilson's biography of the actress, Stanwyck at the time was looked on as the heavy favorite to win, and it was something of a shock when Luise Rainer took home the award. (Rainer had already won the Best Actress honor the year before for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.) Rainer gave a soulful and sensitive performance as a Chinese peasant wife, but today she never would have been given a chance to play an Asian role. Dunne, Garbo, and Gaynor all gave great performances as well--if any of those three ladies had won, it would not be looked upon today as a disappointment. Stanwyck deserved the award just as much as the other nominees--but I can't honestly say she was so much better than the other women, or that she was "robbed".
Stanwyck's second Best Actress nomination came in the movie year of 1941, for her role in BALL OF FIRE. This time she was up against:
Joan Fontaine (winner) in SUSPICION
Bette Davis in THE LITTLE FOXES
Olivia de Havilland in HOLD BACK THE DAWN
Greer Garson in BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST
Out of all the times that Stanwyck was nominated, this is the year she probably should have won. The biggest competition that Barbara had, though, wasn't her fellow nominees--it was herself.
There were a couple of other films Stanwyck appeared in during the year of 1941: THE LADY EVE and MEET JOHN DOE. Stanwyck could have easily been nominated for her performances in those two movies instead of BALL OF FIRE. I'm sure there's a lot of movie buffs who would rank BALL OF FIRE behind THE LADY EVE and MEET JOHN DOE when it comes to showcasing Stanwyck. If the Best Actress award had been given out for overall talent instead of just a single specific role, Stanwyck would have won hands down. But the Oscars don't work that way--so even though Barbara gave three different award-caliber performances, and even though every one of them was better (in my opinion) than any of the other nominees, she came away with nothing.
Joan Fontaine was very good in SUSPICION, but I don't think she was superb; I've read that Fontaine's award was kind of a makeup for her not winning the year before for her role in REBECCA. In BALL OF FIRE Stanwyck runs the whole gamut--she sings, she dances, she's tough, she's sexy, she's funny, and she even gets to show her sensitive side. There's no way you can convince me that any of the other 1941 Best Actress nominees did a far superior job of acting than Stanwyck did.
Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE
Stanwyck's third Best Actress nomination was for 1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The other nominees:
Ingrid Bergman (winner) in GASLIGHT
Claudette Colbert in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY
Bette Davis in MR. SKEFFINGTON
Greer Garson in MRS. PARKINGTON
Barbara's role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY is considered the ultimate example of the cinematic femme fatale. The character she played continues to influence filmed entertainment to this day. Stanwyck may have been too intense as the bad girl--Ingrid Bergman won for her portrayal of the mentally tortured wife in GASLIGHT. At this time Bergman was looked upon as the screen's No. 1 good girl, and I wonder if that influenced the voters' decision. I'm a huge Ingrid fan, and her performance was worthy of being chosen--but how can you really pick between her and Stanwyck? Having to decide on either Ingrid or Barbara illustrates how frustrating the Oscars can be. Did Stanwyck deserve to win this year? Probably, but I wouldn't say she deserved to win by an overwhelming margin.
Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Barbara's fourth (and final) Best Actress nomination was for 1948's SORRY, WRONG NUMBER. Her competition that year:
Jane Wyman (winner) in JOHNNY BELINDA
Ingrid Bergman in JOAN OF ARC
Olivia de Havilland in THE SNAKE PIT
Irene Dunne in I REMEMBER MAMA
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER provided Barbara with a prime "Oscar Bait" role--that of a bedridden neurotic. Unfortunately for Stanwyck, Jane Wyman got one of the biggest "Oscar Bait" roles of all time--that of a poor deaf-mute girl who is raped. There was no way Stanwyck, or anyone else, was going to beat out Wyman this year.
Out of all four of Barbara Stanwyck's Best Actress nominations, I would have to say she truly to deserved to win for BALL OF FIRE, and she probably should have won for DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could also make a very good case for her winning as STELLA DALLAS. I don't think Stanwyck's performance in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER was better than Jane Wyman's in JOHNNY BELINDA. From her nominations alone, I would have to conclude that Stanwyck should have won at least one Best Actress Oscar, and maybe even two.
NOMINATIONS STANWYCK SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN
There's plenty of other performances Stanwyck should have been nominated for--but picking these roles is rather tricky. The ones I have chosen merely reflect my own personal tastes. Because Stanwyck was such a consistently great actress, she could have easily been nominated for years on end.
THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931)
This movie is a favorite of mine, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it. Some of Stanwyck's best film work came in the Pre-Code period....her roles in BABY FACE (1933) and THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) were also Oscar worthy. But one has to remember that Stanwyck was very young in this period, and most of the potboilers she made at this time would not have been considered distinguished enough for awards distinction.
GOLDEN BOY (1939)
Even if Stanwyck had been nominated for this role, she wouldn't have had much of a chance of beating out Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)
This is one of Stanwyck's most underrated and under appreciated performances. She definitely should have at least been nominated for it, and I think it is far better than Ginger Rogers' 1940 Best Actress-winning role in KITTY FOYLE.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946)
THE FURIES (1950)
This is another great Stanwyck role that doesn't get much respect or attention. Unfortunately THE FURIES is a Western, and almost no one, male or female, got nominated back then for a performance in that particular genre.
OTHER FACTORS IN STANWYCK NOT WINNING AN OSCAR
For most of her acting career, Barbara Stanwyck was not associated or contracted to one particular studio--she was a freelance artist. This means that when she was nominated for a Best Actress award, she did not have any major studio's publicity departments boosting her case. She also didn't have one particular studio preparing standout roles for her.
Stanwyck was also known for treasuring her private life off the set, and for not having too much participation in the Hollywood social scene. I don't know if this had a major effect on her not winning an Oscar, but I think it might have had some influence.
One huge factor in Stanwyck not winning an Oscar was her not appearing in any theatrical films after 1964. If she had continued on the big screen, she would have no doubt had a chance at an Oscar, especially in a supporting role. Many performers have won Supporting Oscar awards during their later years--it is understood that the Oscar they have won is more of a "Career Appreciation" award. Stanwyck won a television Emmy at the age of 76 for her role in THE THORN BIRDS, so she certainly still could given an accomplished big-screen performance at that age. I've read that Barbara was up for the role that Katharine Hepburn played in ON GOLDEN POND--one can imagine her maybe copping an Oscar for that.
There's another factor that has to be discussed. I mentioned before how consistently great an actress Barbara Stanwyck was. She gave her all in every role, no matter what the part, and no matter how good (or bad) the movie was. Because of this, there really isn't one single Stanwyck performance that stands out above all the others. If you ask five different film buffs what Stanwyck's greatest role was, I'll bet you get five different answers. Many Oscar winners get the statue because they give an extraordinary performance that is far and away the best of their careers, such as Jane Wyman in JOHNNY BELINDA. Stanwyck wasn't just great in a couple movies--she was great in nearly everything she did. This year-in, year-out excellence may have caused Oscar voters to take Stanwyck for granted.
Writing this post has made me realize that winning an Oscar has more to do with timing, competition, and opportunity than just great acting. Every time Stanwyck was nominated as Best Actress, she was up against women just as talented and famous as she was. Put a young Stanwyck in the late 20th-early 21st Century, and she might have been nominated as many times as Meryl Streep.
Barbara Stanwyck did receive an honorary Oscar in 1982. I'm sure she appreciated it, but I've always felt that honorary Oscars should be renamed the "You're getting very old, so we're going to do something nice for you" award. She should have won a Best Actress Oscar, during her prime Hollywood years. The fact that she didn't shows that you can't judge any performer--or any films--based on the awards they have or haven't won.
Barbara Stanwyck with her honorary Oscar