Actress Files: Susan Hayward
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1958 Best Actress Oscar)
Why I Waited: Susan Hayward going on a spree, any spreeyelling, drinking, drawling, killingapproaches, 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 outlimned with fear, annoyance, and sustained tension, and leavened with one incongruous but very funny throwaway line about mustard plastersthe 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