Stanley began making TV appearances on the "Golden Age" dramatic anthologies, "Danger," "Goodyear TV Playhouse," "Studio One," "Magnavox Theater" and others from the early 1950s. She won an Emmy for her turn on a 1963 "Ben Casey" episode that dealt with mercy killing and made her TV-movie debut in the family drama "Flesh and Blood" (NBC, 1986). The following year she appeared in "U.M.C." (CBS), the pilot for the series "Medical Center." Her performance as Big Mama in a PBS/Showtime production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1984) won Stanley a second Emmy.Her big screen career has been extremely uneven and frustrating. Stanley's debut was in "The Goddess" (1958); she managed to turn in an intelligent performance despite being ludicrously miscast as a Marilyn Monroe-inspired sexpot. She was again impressive as a medium in the low-budget "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964). Despite earning an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, Stanley left films for 18 years. She returned to features as the rapacious monster mother of disturbed actress Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) in "Frances" (1982), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod. This was followed by another great turn as early barnstorming pilot Pancho Barnes in Philip Kaufman's space-race saga "The Right Stuff" (1983). By this time, however, Stanley was devoting most of her time to teaching drama at the College of Santa Fe in her native New Mexico.
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