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BARBARA STANWYCK: SHE PROVED THAT SOME TOUGH GIRLS FINISH FIRST

BARBARA STANWYCK: SHE PROVED THAT SOME TOUGH GIRLS FINISH FIRST

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She was almost the dame too tough to die.

Barbara Stanwyck, that small, tough, gutty gun moll who could stand up to any man and yet never lost her deeply sensual screen presence, passed away Saturday of heart disease, after a legendary career in movies and an effortless segue to television. She was 82.Stanwyck, born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, followed, or perhaps embodied, the path to stardom for actresses of her generation.

She learned self-reliance early and tragically, orphaned as an infant and forced to drop out of school at 13. She supported herself from then on in a variety of menial jobs until she achieved her beginning in show business at 15 as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies. Thus began an upward scramble that was almost never to end.

She made it to Hollywood in the waning days of silent pictures, went back to Broadway to marry a stage star (this marriage to Frank Fay was said to be the inspiration for ``A Star Is Born') and had established herself in pictures by the early '30s, where she took her place among a legion of female stars who specialized in portraying fiber and spine on the screen.

Her contemporaries were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and if she somehow never became as much an icon as either of them, perhaps that's because she was too busy being a professional actress to waste time on much else.

``Attention embarrasses me,' she once said. ``I don't like to be on display.'

Or perhaps it was the cruelty of whimsy. Like her second husband, Robert Taylor, another star whose memory has not lingered, she never quite got a great line, a line that would forever enshrine her in the public mind.

No ``What a dump!,' no ``Judy! Judy! Judy!,' no ``You dirty rat!' Nevertheless, she worked with great professionalism and unfailing generosity to her co-workers, starring in comedies and dramas through the late '30s and early '40s.

Still, her toughness was on view early.

In one of her first films, ``Illicit,' in 1931, she played a woman who didn't believe in marriage and lived openly with her lover. That same year, in ``Night Nurse,' she saved two children who were being starved to death by a drug-addicted doctor, and even arranged, with a bootlegger, to have a brutal chauffeur (Clark Gable) taken care of.

But soon enough she was playing more conventional roles - suffering mothers in ``Interns Can't Take Money' and the pushy, desperate ``Stella Dallas' in 1937, for which she received one of four Academy Award nominations she was to earn, though she never won an Oscar. She did, however, receive a special Academy honor in 1981.

But Stanwyck's career was to take a sudden spurt in the late '40s, when almost by chance, her strengths became exactly the strengths of the reigning artistic mode of the day, film noir.

In the morally ambiguous world of the film noir, with its tangled alliances and secret anxieties, Stanwyck was perfection: She had a kind of hard beauty and street-tough cunning that made her a natural as a femme fatale or a black widow, the prevailing noir view of womanhood. Her guts and steel made her the match of any man; she even looked good with a gun in her hand.

Pauline Kael has said that ``Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson - a platinum blonde who wears tight white sweaters, an anklette and sleazy-kinky shoes - is perhaps the best acted and the most fixating of all the slutty, cold-blooded femmes fatales of the film noir genre.'

The film, of course, was Billy Wilder's hypnotically watchable version of James M. Cain's ``Double Indemnity,' which followed as Stanwyck coldly seduced insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into plotting the perfect murder of her husband; then, united in blood and in bed, they watch in horror as Neff's boss unravels it all, dooming them.

There was something undeniably tough about Stanwyck, and it formed the center of a whole slew of noir films: ``Clash by Night,' ``Crime of Passion,' ``The File on Thelma Jordan,' ``The Strange Lives of Martha Ivers,' ``Sorry, Wrong Number,' and ``Witness to Murder.'

Stanwyck continued to work obsessively, and even by the mid-'50s, when she was relegated to playing in B-westerns such as ``Cattle Queen of Montana,' ``The Maverick Queen,' and ``Forty Guns,' her professionalism continued to shine.

She alone among the stars of her generation had no false pride about switching to the less prestigious world of series television, and for three years was another cowgirl queen, this time on ``The Big Valley.'

``Career was too pompous a word,' she said of her life on screen. ``It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid for what I love doing.'

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