Saturday, June 05, 2010

Actress Files: Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1958 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: Susan Hayward going on a spree, any spree—yelling, drinking, drawling, killing—approaches, for me, the delicious promise of Jessica Lange going on a tear or Angela Bassett flying up a wall. Meaning, it doesn't always portend new heights in novelty or actorly self-control, but it's often been electrifying in the past, and I wouldn't want to miss it. Plus, that title!

The Performance: David Thomson begins his entry on this actress in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film thusly: "Susan Hayward was a trouper who never saw any reason to do anything other than sock it to us." Reader, I cannot do any better than that. He continues, "If, as I feel, she is largely devoid of appeal, it is a credit to her determination and uncompromising directness that she lasted so long." Here, I have to demur, insofar as I do see appeal. I have certainly had my complaints with some Hayward performances, and it means something that so many of them are hard to remember and difficult to distinguish from one another. Her styles of "socking it to us" come in a set number of varieties, though we should not undervalue the conviction she applies to showing her audience a real and unstinting performance, whatever that winds up meaning for her. I found her tremendously watchable as the drunk in the trashy Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, even when she teeters precariously between elevating and sinking into the hollow, untrained sensationalism of the filmmaking. And in 1955's I'll Cry Tomorrow, at least, she is truly electrifying. In that performance, she has to sing, dance, guzzle, fume, quarrel, fall apart, and do it all in the guise of a famous person, someone still very much around when the movie came out. But yes, given Hayward's somewhat limited range and her intent focus on a species of role that seems so out of keeping with her outward appearance, it's remarkable how she endured. She carved a niche for herself that can seem campy today: the actress working hard to look careworn, always whipping up a dipsomaniacal storm, despite looking exactly like your elementary-school music teacher. There's no questioning, though, how huge a star she was throughout the 1950s, or how much she pushed the boundaries of the kinds of disastrous behavior that a female actor could embody in a mainline Hollywood picture.

Still, Hayward's craving for attention, and specifically that of Oscar, seems as intense as the more chemical cravings of even her most dissolute characters. Certainly there are actors preceding Hayward who seem groomed to be darlings of the industry and its docile voting bodies, women who pursue vehicles that aspire more to votes than to art. Greer Garson and Jennifer Jones are clear examples. But Hayward in some ways strikes me as the first actress whose career seems to exist as a long, dogged march toward Oscar, in a style that virtually dares the voters to deny her a prize. When you don't win for playing one extravagantly "fallen" girl (Smash-Up), then play another one (My Foolish Heart). When these don't work, switch courses and play someone aggressively wholesome, giving you lots of chances to charm, suffer, and even sing, all in gossamer feminine costumes (With a Song in My Heart). Granted, though, you wind up needing the famous gal you're playing to dub your vocals for you. So when that nomination doesn't pan out into a win, go back to your proven métier in shrieking substance-dependents, but keep the flashy angles of biography and diegetic showmanship, and this time, wow 'em with your real singing voice (I'll Cry Tomorrow).

When that doesn't work, ask yourself what on Christ's green Earth you need to do to win one of these damn trophies, and settle for no less than the story of real-life death-row inmate Barbara Graham. Plenty of booze, sex, and erratic behavior, and some wide-angle close-ups of the character bellowing from behind bars. Just wait till they see you striding into the gas chamber, getting masked and strapped into your Medieval chair while the cyanide tablets are readied. This'll really hook 'em! Get nominated again, alongside three-time loser Rosalind Russell and four-time loser Deborah Kerr. It's fine if everyone feels sorry for them, too, but make clear that yours is the career most obviously in need of an overdue statuette, and make sure, to this end, that the picture billboards its own Importance as often as possible. Win. Enjoy. And then, having satiated you with the one form of respect on which your whole professional life seems inordinately premised, notice how your Hollywood colleagues immediately stop offering you good parts, never nominate you again, and leave you with a bunch of desultory films and roles until your clock runs down.

So, basically, Susan Hayward is a kind of Susan Sarandon figure, a hugely popular actress for a lengthy but seemingly finite period; a highly respected figure in her community who evidently absorbs the hype that it's a crime she's never won an Oscar. Therefore, she sets herself undisguisedly to cinching one, even if it means proffering evidence of a repetitive strain in her acting. They both cleaved rather ardently to their own typecasting, and they finally struck gold on their fifth tries, relying on the tonal solemnity and the inevitable dramatic stakes of Death Row to usher them both to glory. Almost from the moment they at long last won their Oscars, their careers began to decline. But the huge letdown of I Want to Live!, which you could never in a million years ascribe to Dead Man Walking, is that it seems somewhat sleazily undecided about whether to treat capital punishment as an occasion for moral reflection or for 2,000 volts of slick, gaudy potboilerism. And without question, though one could fairly have expected more from director Robert Wise, I Want to Live! bends over backwards to let its actress make a bold but tireless, unrestrained, and frequently tacky show of herself. Hayward could not be seeking awards gold any more candidly if she showed up to set in a dress made of magnet tape, and yet, in a total about-face from the harrowing, earnest extremities of her Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow, Hayward coats her Barbara Graham in a thick wax of flippant mannerism and self-regard. She looks ripely pleased with herself through the lion's share of I Want to Live!, leading to scenes for which the proper response is not an Academy Award but an abrupt "cut" and a second, recalibrated take. Once more, with humility.

In a sense, whether she sought the part or was recruited for it, Hayward is a victim here of radical miscasting that only looks like no-brainer casting. Women in extremis, especially in biopics, practically meant "Susan Hayward" by 1958, but she was already 40 years old by the time she filmed this part. Almost everything in the script implies a much younger woman, and indeed, the real Barbara Graham was only a couple years past 30 when she was executed. Hayward's performance is full of facetious pantomimes and exaggeratedly animated gestures that may well be intended to make the character seem younger, but to no avail. Not even her incongruous, somewhat embarrassing dance to a bongo beat at a drink-soaked party can help her in this arena. Her eyes pop, her head cocks to the side, her smile goes crooked, and she makes other, erratic gestures in the name of improvisational pizzazz, some of them aimed right at the camera. Perhaps she is trying to syncopate the register of her acting with the loud, busy jazz score of Johnny Mandel. The film and the actress, though, feel inordinately hell-bent on presenting Barbara as a livewire, a good-time girl, a ball of boisterous, amoral energy ...but not a killer. And so a good deal of dramatic tension flies out the window while Hayward indulges in double-takes and shimmies with untoward glee.

Wise. Hayward. The screenwriters, Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz. The dubiously repentant crime reporter Ed Montgomery (played here by Simon Oakland), whose articles are credited as an adapted source for I Want to Live!'s script and who emerges here as a major advocate for Barbara's harsh sentence, only to undergo a Damascene change of heart and start lobbying to save her hide. All of these collaborators clearly prefer to portray Barbara as a merry but irresponsible party girl, rather than a woman who may well have perpetrated the murder for which she is charged. Hayward looks sozzled and slap-happy plenty of the time as I Want to Live! gets going, and she gets some more bite into her rowdy burlesque of drunkenness once she and her bartender-husband Henry are berating each other with their baby squalling in between them, gray circles hanging beneath their bloodshot eyes and the specter of potential violence quickly coming to a head. For all that, though, Hayward never feels dangerous, in a way that punchy Piper Laurie almost certainly would have, as might an Anne Bancroft type, capable of anger, temper, and other, disciplined forms of unnerving potency.

Instead, symptomatically of other errant drifts in the performance, Hayward makes leering, bizarrely comic lunges at the camera as she enters the warehouse where the police apprehend her and her male accomplices. She does so again when the cops arrive to flush her out amid hot white spotlights. In the shower and the delousing inspection she undergoes on her way into jail, a naked Barbara is asked "What's that?" by a nurse looking her over for scars or infected sores. "My push-button control," is Barbara's taunting response, and I can't believe she says that in a 1958 script, clearly with something else in mind. Still, even in moments where the character is obviously taking smug pride in her own insolence, Hayward's delectation in her tough-broad dialogue and in her own "saucy" delivery feels too constant, supercilious, and flat. She overwhelms our sense of the character beneath this spectacle of an actress congratulating herself on playing someone in so mordantly caustic a fashion, as though this in itself is the closest she needs to come to exploring Barbara's susceptibility to lawlessness. Or as though Hayward's growing fatigue with playing similar variations on reckless, bullheaded characters is a good enough reason to start communicating them so haphazardly, with an eye toward entertaining herself more than illuminating the woman in the story.

Again, the script and direction do not help, even though I don't mean to describe her as a total wash in I Want to Live! She gets a great, silhouetted entrance in a panting boudoir scene, which might have been devised by Sam Fuller as one of his classic, tawdry character intros. But where Fuller and associated muses like Constance Towers, whatever their failures of finesse, would have thrived in the unabashedly criminal milieu and dared us to deny them their charisma, Wise and his editors virtually occlude any sense we have of what Hayward's Barbara has or hasn't perpetrated alongside her underworld pals. Her incessant kiss-offs to social propriety feel too detached from any genuine thrill in wrong-doing, or any contagious sense of desperation, the kinds that could lead a woman like Barbara into much deeper trouble. A director with fuller, richer conviction in B-grade pictures, the ones that usually run under titles like I Want to Live!, would never have let Hayward get away with such skin-deep impudence, had such a director even cast her at all. When she eventually plays other emotions beyond her laughing-Medusa routine, whether in the guises of a furious inmate or a despondent mother or an outraged defendant or a desperate witness or a hard-bitten stoic in the face of state-sanctioned extermination, these often tend to feel overdone as well, and occasionally downright clownish. By contrast, when Hayward does elect to give herself a richer workout, you can always feel it, as during a long, tense scene played in shot/reverse close-ups when Barbara is trying to hire a cellmate's handsome boyfriend as an alibi-for-sale, committing perjury in order to claim that he was with her on the night she is accused of helping to murder an old widow. This scheme doesn't work nearly as well as Barbara had hoped, but as a cameo impression of the woman's studious preparations for an immoral way out—limned with fear, annoyance, and sustained tension, and leavened with one incongruous but very funny throwaway line about mustard plasters—the sequence profits more than most do from Hayward's characteristic intensity.

She certainly has her moments in the final chapters, too, as Barbara nears the hour of her appointed death. She is both filing multiple pleas for a stay of execution and haranguing her lawyers and advocates for lodging these requests. Such high-stakes ambivalence puts some credible human drama into Hayward's playing, and she edges up to an engaging rapport with Alice Backes, playing her final guard and confidante in San Quentin. Nonetheless, the much-vaunted power of the movie's closing sequences depends less on Hayward than on the frank but arguably sensualized details of how an execution is prepped. Submitting herself to the scarily sterile atmosphere and the moment-to-moment protocols of a California execution cannot have been easy on Hayward, and I'm sure she didn't take the role lightly. But in some ways she has taken the part, if not lightly, then at least over-easily. Her transition from overplayed, self-indulgent jocularity to a stern, frayed-edge stoicism by the finale serves the material just fine, I guess, but it's not a particularly subtle, fresh, or difficult way to explore the complicated workings and enigmas of Barbara Graham.

I would also point out that with the exception of Jo Van Fleet in I'll Cry Tomorrow (not coincidentally, Hayward's strongest performance), I find it hard to recall almost any of the other actors in Hayward's other starring vehicles. Possible senility aside, I think this struggle on my part suggests Hayward's frequently ostentatious approach to her job, stealing her scenes even when she's already dead-center, and even though the supporting parts have been cast too thinly to keep them from bringing a whole lot to the table. On the one hand, Hayward's showboating gets in the way of our dwelling on anybody or anything else, which also hampers the ability of I Want to Live! to prompt the kind of larger ethical rumination on capital punishment that it seems to have in mind. It's hard to see past Hayward and wrangle with anything else in the film. On the other hand, the showboating is so flagrant even when it's most effective that when the fatal boom gets lowered on Barbara in the last ten minutes, I was much more aware of watching the curtain come down on a fruity bit of overacting, not of watching a soul get snuffed out by an implacable, bureaucratic system. There are more than enough high points in Hayward's construction of Barbara Graham to make a credible case for three stars, but I have to concede, most of the good stuff you've seen before. Worse, a million opportunities for depth and credibility have been squandered in the name of wry, imprecise gesticulating. An intriguing film and a much more insinuating dissection of an unsettling woman still make themselves felt in brief but palpable flashes. I just wish they hadn't been trapped in a project that ought to have been titled I Want to Win!, and one that professes such blowzy, cynical ideas of what the voters might misrecognize as great acting or great art. Then again, the voters did recognize it as exactly this, so who am I to carp?

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 4 to Go

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12 Comments:

Blogger The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I listened to this performance rather than watch it the first time and I can understand how all over the place and jumpy from snide floozy to wronged captive Susan Hayward gets. I just recently watched The Three Faces of Eve and couldn't help but notice how similar Susan Hayward's Barbara Graham was to Joanne Woodward's Eve Black. Do you think Susan stole from that characterization? I mean it WAS the winning performance from the previous year.

As for Susan's career, wasn't she always some studio exec's pet project? The Oscar win was inevitable. Though I must say, Susan must have the most overly dramatic titled movies, a fact that I love since I find her Helen Lawson to be an amusing summation of her.

4:45 AM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I will say you had me a bit uneasy with the comparisons to Sarandon until you made the distinctions between the two movies (I've seen probably 1/4 to 1/2 of the winners, but Sarandon's Prejean is easily among my favourites). I know I've seen I want to Live! in parts, I vividly remember that ending and I essentially agree with all you say. I remember coming away from the movie thinking that Hayward was probably misled by the ! in the movie title and thus punctuated every fiber of performance with that same exclamatory way. (I mean does the phrase I want to live really require a punctuation mark, it's already an earnest proclamation.) I end up finding her (unintentionally) funny in most of it.

PS. This will sound weird, but seeing Kristin Scott Thomas’ name on your list of fantastic winners my favourite thing to happen today, a great early birthday present (did you ever write a profile of her performance?). Usually, this is where I’d tell you how much I love The English Patient…but there’s not enough space (it’s my all time favourite, yes indeed).

(Just so you know, you and your excellent prose are preventing me from finishing my linguistics paper.)

5:13 AM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger Brook Brooks said...

I love this write-up. You seem to genuinely admire Hayward in general, even if not this performance. From those screens, it seems like she was a kind of American version of Vivien Leigh; in terms of looks even if not talent or acting style.

Can't wait to see what you think of the final four!

6:07 AM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

Susan Hayward is one of the few actresses who can maker "over-the-top" work. There are so many flaws in this performance but at the same time she is so watchable and sometimes even fantastic.

10:19 AM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I'm glad you praised that startling silhouetted I -need--air intro; It bristles with a spontanaiety sadly missing from the rest of the film. In a late 60's interview , long after the "I Want to Live!" Oscar was safely lodged on her mantel, Hayward indicated the performance she was proudest of was her work in "I'll Cry Tomorrow". So it seems she, you and I are all unanimous in rating that her finest hour. Especially (but not exclusively) for her electrifying interplay with Jo Van Fleet. I must admit I think Hayward's extremely funny as Veronica Lake's fiery rival in 1942's "I Married a Witch". I'd certainly have tossed a supporting nomination her way that year.
By the way, I recently saw "Yield to the Night", a 1957 British film that takes the same basic woman-on -death-row subject matter and handles it far more effectively than "I Want to Live!". A deglamorized (at least for most of the film) Diana Dors plays the lead and does herself proud. Plus this movie makes no bones about the fact that the protagonist is guilty, giving audiences more to chew on (than "I Want to Live!") as they calibrate their own reactions to the character.

10:24 AM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@JAR: Well, Fritz already made clearer to me in the Ingrid Bergman thread that '55-'58 really was quite a run for blustery, overstated winners. He implies that '54 fits this run, too, but I shouldn't say yet, since I don't know. It would make perfect sense to me if some queen at the studio was Susan's "inside man," forever trying to hook her up with those junkie roles.

@A:EE: I like Sarandon in Dead Man Walking a lot, and I really, really love the movie. No worries on that front. I almost made the same point in this write-up about Hayward over-stressing the "!", so we're simpatico down the line today.

@Brook: More uncanny echoes! There were a few moments in this where it seemed to me that Hayward had been studying Streetcar, all of them in jail, though you can imagine that they would sit rather oddly in this movie. And maybe she wasn't thinking that at all, and the camera was just suggesting the resonance, somewhere in her face.

@Fritz: I agree she can "do" over-the-top, I agree she's occasionally fantastic here, but as I've said, I also think there are more than a few moments where she falls flat or even embarrasses herself.

@CKen: How nice to be in agreement with you and Susan. I had trouble finding I Married a Witch when I was watching a lot of 1942 last year, but I'll resume the search eventually. Yield to the Night sounds fascinating!

12:22 PM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Everyone: Nathaniel suggested I Want to Win! as a replacement for I Want an Oscar! in the final paragraph, and the idea's too good not to steal. Thanks, N!

1:15 PM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

I would also suggest "I want to WIN!" or "I want to overact!"

5:17 PM, June 05, 2010  
Blogger Nick Duval said...

An unrelated comment: I watched "The Earrings of Madame de..." on your quasi-recommendation (a.k.a. your top 100 list) and I really enjoyed it.

To add: I am looking forward to what you have to say about "Exit Through the Gift Shop," one of my favorite films in a while.

1:39 PM, June 07, 2010  
Blogger Nick Duval said...

Also curious as to whether you concur with the general opinion on "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a film I very much hated.

1:40 PM, June 07, 2010  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

This was an excellent assessment of Susan Hayward's power and problems as a performer. My primary problem with the actress, despite my respect for her ferocious persistence: her lack of humor.

Think about it. Was there ever a moment when she allowed a glimmer of lightness or self-aware irony to creep into a scene? I am afraid not. I was a bit surprised that you did not mention her early, very promising performance in Deadline at Dawn (1946), in which she gave a fresh, vulnerable and touching performance that (for once) seemed unforced under the direction of Harold Clurman (and an uncredited Robert Siodmak). What happened to that actress is probably something I'll never understand.

You are quite perceptive in your assertion about Susan Hayward's laser-like quest for an Oscar. In an interview with The Toronto Star's Jim Bawden, director Henry Hathaway said about her: "She had one goal: To win an Oscar. She won (for Robert Wise's I Want To Live! in 1958) and right after that we made Woman Obsessed (1959) back at Big Bear Lake. She’d lost all her oomph, no longer cared about acting. But management dictated we shoot mostly on sound stages which were empty by then. And she shouted at me one day 'I can’t think of a single reason why I’m making this damned thing, can you?' I couldn’t either but I wanted to finish off my contract."

Your reviews are a delight to read. Thank you for this blog.

6:11 PM, February 23, 2011  
Blogger P. Duc said...

Well sorry to disagree...I find Susan Hayward's acting in "I want to live" absolutely riveting...She moved me to tears. The final scenes are hauting and I wanted to reach to "her barbara" to comfort her.

I regard Susan Hayward as one of the greatest American film actresses ever.

5:44 AM, November 16, 2015  

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