I think that Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actor who ever worked in movies. Other actors, at their best, have given performances as fine as her finest performances — some have, on very rare occasions, given finer ones. But in terms of consistent brilliance over time, in terms of unfailing artistic courage, emotional commitment and erotic daring, no other actors have come close to Stanwyck, and it’s unlikely that any ever will.
Stanwyck was not classically beautiful, by the standards of her time, or any time — she knew this and accepted it. This acceptance freed her from the petty narcissism of many female movie stars — allowed her to be “ugly” in the display of emotion. At the same time, though, she knew she was a figure of deep erotic fascination, and she knew how to exploit that fascination.
She had a body built for carnal pleasure, and she was smart — smart enough to know that her intelligence was in itself an erotic attribute. You got attractive bits and pieces of feminine allure from other great movie stars, but from Stanwyck you got it all, a woman in full — because she didn’t have the perfect mask for perfect close-ups, she had to give you everything else in spades.
If you think that Hedy Lamarr, just to take one example, is more beautiful than Barbara Stanwyck — if you think that any actor in cinema history is more beautiful than Barbara Stanwyck — then you don’t know what beauty is, you don’t know what makes a woman beautiful.
But don’t despair — Stanwyck’s genius can educate you about these things.