Few may remember the beautiful Barbara, a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Barbara was a beautiful blonde with serious acting chops and a lust for life, sex and drugs. Unlike Monroe, Barbara’s addictions overshadowed her talent before she was able to become famous. And after only a few roles in the limelight, she drowned in a dark pool of alcohol. Today, the only reason people remember her is because she is one of the biggest cautionary tales to ever come out of Hollywood.
Barbara Payton started out as did many starlets in B-movies, Noir Thrillers that cast her as the femme fatale. And like many starlets, she bided her time, giving the most she could from these small roles and trying to build a career within the restraints of the studio system. A system that seemed to have only two roles for women: The whore or the wife who is an angel.
Barbara was a statuesque blonde with dangerous curves and an intelligence that made the latter role of adoring wife none to believable, at least in 1950’s America. But as an actress on her way up she had all the right ingredients – talent, beauty and above all a distinctive look. And like many contemporaries, she enjoyed herself in the Hollywood nightlife. Maybe a little too much for her studio bosses.
The sad truth of it is that Barbara had everything going for her but she wanted to act like one of the boys at a time when women were supposed to be chaste and virtuous even though the characters they portrayed onscreen where not. This was only one of Hollywood’s incredible list of double standards when it came to actresses or any woman who wanted to be taken seriously in the business. But it was probably the biggest rule in tinseltown, especially for actresses who had not attained enough power and stardom to even think about calling their own shots.
Barbara’s big break came after she was beat out for the Marilyn Monroe part in The Asphalt Jungle by, well, Marilyn Monroe. She screen-tested for Jimmy Cagney and his producer brother William for the violent noir thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in 1950. Brother Cagney was so smitten with Payton’s sensual appeal and beauty that her contract was drawn as a joint agreement between William Cagney Productions and Warner Brothers, who paid Payton a salary of $5,000 a week. This was a huge sum for an actress yet to demonstrate star power at the box-office.
Barbara hit a home run in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. She held her own among a cast of Hollywood veterans and alongside super-star Cagney. Payton’s portrayal of the hardened, seductress who Cagney’s character ultimately double-crosses, was critically praised. Her acting chops were finally recognized and screen charisma cemented in the audience’s mind. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was Barbara’s career high. The moment all actresses wait for to break through. But it wasn’t to last.
Barbara had stiff competition from Monroe, Mansfield, Turner and a host of other blonde bombshells. However, her biggest enemy was herself as news spread of her partying and lascivious activities in Hollywood. She could drink anyone of her male counterparts under the table. She also took anyone she fancied to bed. This left little to the imagination for an industry that is build on illusion. Even her handlers, agents and manager could not get her to curtail her lustful habits. They gave her one more big push, however, with another A-List film to see if she could pull herself out of her own personal and professional tailspin.
Her next two onscreen performances were opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas and Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant. Both were westerns and ultimately lackluster box-office affairs. More depressing, they where roles that failed to highlight Barbara’s skills as a talented actress. Payton’s career quickly declined and found her plying her trade in such horrible horror fare as the Bride of the Gorilla (1951) opposite rising star Raymond Burr.
Unfortunately, Payton’s excessive partying, drinking, and liaisons with men of dubious reputation killed her credibility and alienated the Hollywood power brokers. Barbara was to become a lost soul walking Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. She was unable to acknowledge that her once-promising career had crashed and burned. She fed her illusions with drugs, alcohol and men who used, abused and discarded her.
The once-promising career of Barbara Payton slid down the sewer of skid row in Los Angeles. Her descent was so horrifying that it garnered her a different kind of fame – one that the likes of Lindsey Lohan are replaying for the public today. But unlike LiLo, Barbara would not get any second, third or fourth chances. Her last gasp was a tell-all memoir that was ghost-written and for which Barbara would only get $1,000 in drinking money. And drink she did.
The paperback was a big seller, depicting how a beautiful young woman who had the world by the tail one minute, descends into depraved alcoholism and is forced to prostitute herself on the very street she once imagined having her Star on the Walk of Fame. To top it off, Barbara was portrayed as remorseless, seemingly determined at every turn to self-destruct even while denying that her acting career was over.
The once-beautiful Barbara Payton ended up where she began, moving back into her parent’s home and joining them in alcoholic binges that would last weeks. She would die of heart and liver failure at the age of 39. It is truly a sad tale but not one that should ever be forgotten. And not one that can be entirely blamed on Hollywood. Because Hollywood success only magnifies the demons we each hold within ourselves, and hopefully in check. But fame very often fuels those inner demons and can destroy us faster than anyone or anything else. I’d like to think that if Barbara never became famous she may have lived a normal, healthy and long life. But that’s probably being as naive as Barbara was about her career.
All we have left of her are beautiful, black and white images of the once-beautiful starlet who showed so much promise. I sincerely hope that Barbara’s story will find a wider audience some day because I think she struggled with her addictions more than people of her day realized. Mental illness and addiction are still not fully understood today but at least we as a society know they are a disease and deserve our compassion and attention. Maybe young people today will someday look back at Barbara Payton and learn from her story rather than be forced to repeat it. Maybe then her time in the limelight will have been well spent and her painful death not in vain.
A couple more shots of a healthy, glowing Barbara Payton in her prime when she had her whole life and career ahead of her.