Noir Noir: Oscar Omission – Barbara Stanwyck

Noir Noir: Oscar Omission – Barbara Stanwyck

It’s about that time again – awards season! My favorite time of year. As I write this, I’m in the midst of my annual quest to see as many Oscar-nominated films and peformances as possible. (Luckily, with streaming, I’m now able to see all of the entries in the major categories!)

In keeping with the Oscar theme, today’s Noir Nook will take a look at an actress who, for my money, is one of the finest performers from the Golden Age of Hollywood – and who never won an Oscar: Barbara Stanwyck.

I know – it makes no sense, right? Not with films like Stella Dallas and Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve under her belt! But, sadly, it’s true. While Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award on four occasions, she never won. To the Academy’s credit, she was given an honorary award in 1982 for being “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress and one of the great ladies of Hollywood”, which beats a blank, I suppose, but still. I think Stanwyck should have at least won one competitive Oscar, if not multiple awards, for several of her noirs. Let’s take a look at four that I believe were worthy of the prize.


Phyllis Dietrichson: Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Omissions Double Indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity

In this feature – my favorite noir, in case I hadn’t mentioned that lately – Stanywyck’s Phyllis teams with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to bump off her husband and enjoy a big insurance payday. Like the best laid plans of mice and men, though, this scheme goes to the left, thanks in big part to Walter’s boss, Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson), who possesses a flawless intuition – in the form of the “little man” inside his gut.

As Phyllis, Stanwyck brings to life one of noir’s iconic femmes fatales – she’s at once sexy, scheming, vulnerable, intelligent, ruthless, duplicitous, and smooth as polished ice. So many of her scenes are standouts, like the one where she feigns innocence while simultaneously trying to get Walter to assist in her quest to do away with Mr. Dietrichson. Or the one where Walter kills her husband in the car seat beside her, and her face is a blank mask until that last moment when she allows a slight, satisfied smile to curve her lips. Or the one in the supermarket where she frostily informs Walter that it’s “straight down the line for both of us.”


Martha Ivers: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Omissions, Strange Love of Martha Ivers (pictured with Kirk Douglas)
Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Here, Stanwyck plays the title role of a woman who, as a child, murdered her hated aunt (Judith Anderson) with a blow from her own cane. (And if that doesn’t give you a clue to Martha’s persona, I don’t know what will.) Martha grew up to run (and expand) the industrial empire she inherited upon her aunt’s death – and to marry Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas), the childhood friend who stood beside her (literally and figuratively) during the crime. Martha’s domain is rocked when serendipity brings the return of another pal from her youth, Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), who was also at Martha’s house on the night of her aunt’s death and has visions of blackmail – at least Martha and Walter believe he does.

Stanwyck’s entrance as the adult Martha is revealing – she exits her chauffeur-driven car and sweeps into her house in the midst of a rainstorm. She enters without a drop of water daring to touch her and addresses her butler without granting him so much as a glance.  Stanwyck’s Martha is always in control, always in charge, and usually a little scary; whether she’s browbeating her weak-willed, alcoholic husband, or casting shade in the direction of the down-on-her-luck dame (Lizabeth Scott) who has fallen in love with Sam, she’s always the center of attention. In my favorite scene, she uses her considerable wiles to coax Sam into killing Walter – and Stanwyck serves up a master class in silent acting as she observes the outcome.


Thelma Jordon: The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Omissions, The File on Thelma Jordon (pictured with Wendell Corey)
Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon

Once again in the title role, Stanwyck plays a woman who kills her wealthy aunt (what is with Stanwyck and aunts?) and is prosecuted for the crime by Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), the assistant District Attorney with whom she’s been having an affair. Three guesses as to whether Cleve pulls out all the stops to ensure a guilty verdict – and the first two don’t count.

Stanwyck’s Thelma is an interesting character. She’s not hard-boiled like Phyllis Dietrichson, or domineering like Martha Ivers. You can understand why Cleve falls for her – she’s quietly sexy, subtly elegant, sophisticated but not unreachable. Her voice is soft and smoky, she’s easy to talk to and to listen to, especially when she says things like this: “I only know I think of you all day and all night. What I’ll wear so you’ll look at me with that look in your eyes like now. . . . And what I’ll do the next time you take me in your arms.” Incidentally, she’s also an expert liar, which she demonstrates not just with Cleve but with her other lover, Tony (Richard Rober). But that’s a whole ‘nother story. The bottom line is, Stanwyck is several different women in this film – and she plays them each to perfection.


Leona Stevenson: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Barbara Stanwyck, Oscar Omission, Sorry, Wrong Number
Barbara Stanwyck as Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number

In this feature, based on a 1943 radio play, Stanwyck is spoiled and self-centered heiress Leona Stevenson, whose confinement to her bed due to a heart condition has not diminished her dominance over her weak-willed husband (Burt Lancaster) or her doting father (Ed Begley, Sr.). When crossed telephone wires allow her to overhear two men planning a soon-to-be murder, she tries to learn more about the plot, but discovers more than she’d bargained for.

With the exception of flashbacks, Stanwyck’s Leona spends the bulk of the film in bed, which makes her performance even more impressive. From there, she emotes and emotes and emotes, taking her character from petulance to annoyance, haughtiness to hysteria, and anxiety to terror. After the film’s release, the reviewer for Cue proclaimed that Stanwyck had turned in the best performance of her career. I can’t argue with that.


So, what do you think? Should Stanwyck have earned an Oscar for any of these noirs? And can you think of any other noir performances that deserved Oscar recognition? Leave a comment and let me know!

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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One Response to Noir Noir: Oscar Omission – Barbara Stanwyck

  1. Warren says:

    Barbara deserved at least two Oscars: “The Lady Eve” and “Double Indemnity” are first-rank masterpieces. Other films that qualified for nominations, in addition to the ones listed above, at least were “Ladies of Leisure,” “Baby Face,” “Ball of Fire,” and perhaps “The Other Love.” As a collective, they demonstrate her incredible talent and range.

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