WEIRDLAND: Susan Hayward's Centennial (Film Legend)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Susan Hayward's Centennial (Film Legend)

In the century since her birth (June 30, 1917) Susan Hayward has started to fade from the public consciousness – but not everywhere. Fans still make the pilgrimage to her gravesite at Our Lady of Perpetual Help outside Carrollton, to see the unlikely place where a Tinsel Town goddess made her onetime home and her final resting place. At the edge of her 100th birthday, she now endures as a legend. The real person who inhabited that legend, it turns out, is hard to find.

In 1947, she received the first of what would eventually be five Academy Award nominations for the film “Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman.” In 1949, she was nominated for the Best Actress award for “My Foolish Heart.” There are many people still living in west Georgia who tell fond stories of Susan Hayward living like “an ordinary person” in Carrollton. Many in Carrollton considered her a friend, and she threw herself into many local affairs. She seemed to enjoy the contrast between her life in west Georgia and Hollywood, and when a Hollywood reporter asked her in 1958 about why she preferred Carrollton over Los Angeles, she said: “It’s a great place. No telephones ringing all day long, no big deals being made, no smog! People down there really know how to live – and relax.”

Hollywood did not entirely disappear from Susan Hayward’s life. She had commitments for at least six more films, and in 1957 she returned to Los Angeles to begin filming “I Want to Live,” a movie based on the life of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. On screen, Hayward put on a powerful performance, including a painfully realistic scene recreating Graham’s 1955 execution in the gas chamber. Released in 1958, the film did well at the box office, and she captured her fifth nomination for Best Actress. She captured the Oscar™ the next April, signaling her arrival at the height of the acting profession. Her biographers, Robert LaGuardia and Gene Acerci, wrote in 1986 that one scene – that execution scene in “I Want to Live” – describes that talent at the peak of development. Hayward, they wrote, “was able to rid herself of mannerisms, deleting all those extraneous body movements that had become her trademarks.” Instead, she pared down her movements: a defiant glance, a slow building of emotions, minimal movements during the most terrifying scenes. 

In other words, Hayward had so enveloped the role of her character, that the person playing that role was completely masked. It was, in essence, what Susan became herself – a person who remained private, unknowable, even to people who thought they knew her; even to those who should have known her best. Who Susan Hayward really was remains elusive, despite all the biographies about her. Her acting skills cannot be cataloged from the films she made; her soul cannot be reconstructed from all the fond stories told today by Carrollton friends. This is not a surprise, since legends are made by other people; not by the legends themselves. Source:

Walter Wanger, who had controlled Susan Hayward's professional destiny up to 1950, sold her contract to 20th Century Fox for $200,000. Wanger felt a mixture of relief and regret. Although his contract with her had more than 2 ½ years to go he felt it was time for Susan to move away; but it was believed he simply needed the money. Susan signed a 7 year no-option contract at a sliding annual increase salary beginning at $150,000. From now on, Susan really got the star treatment. “I couldn’t care less —and I never did care— about the A treatment, the star’s dressing room, the limousine. That’s all junk,” she declared. “Oh, it’s nice if you can have it, but it was never important to me. I never cared if I had to dress in a broom closet or a tent as long as I had privacy to change my costumes. Some performers wouldn’t work if their dressing room wasn’t posh and that’s junk. Just externals; it means nothing. The only thing that’s important is what you put on film and what it does to your audience.” Susan was very upset over the imprisonment of her champion Walter Wanger, who was now serving a 90 days jail sentence for the shooting of Jennings Lang over Lang’s attentions to Joan Bennett. Susan realized that Walter had sold her contract to Fox to pay off creditors after having lost a fortune with his independently produced film Joan of Arc (1948).

I'll cry Tomorrow's screenplay was adapted by Helen Deutsch and Jay Richard Kennedy from the 1954 autobiography by Lillian Roth. Susan Hayward as Lillian Roth changed a lot during the shooting, often went into long trances and became at times quite unreachable. She brooded and had frequent fits of severe nervousness and bouts of delirium tremens, similar to those that Lillian Roth must have experienced. The pain of her early years, which she was summoning for the role, sent her, in the early part of the filming especially, into desperate depressions. She could portray the lonely, frustrated singer so well because she had experienced similar emotions; despite the fact that many of her troubles were self made.

Susan Hayward received some of the best reviews of her career for I'll cry Tomorrow (1955). Lillian Roth was deeply moved by Hayward's acting. Look Magazine called it "a shattering, intense performance that may win her the Academy Award" "Gut-wrenching," said Time. The performance earned Hayward her fourth Oscar nomination. But the Oscar that year went to Anna Magnani, for The Rose Tattoo (1955). Hayward would finally win it for I Want to Live! (1958). Enacting Roth's agony seems to have been cathartic. One night, Hayward took an overdose of sleeping pills. Before she blacked out, Hayward called her mother, who called police. Hayward barely survived. She never spoke publicly about why she tried to kill herself, but she filmed a few weeks later the harrowing scene in which Roth attempts suicide. “The impact on me was terrifying,” Daniel Mann said.

Barbara Graham's "compared to what?" answer to the dime-store philosophy "life is funny" indicates that she improvises her way through life paralleling the film's jazz soundtrack. She takes what comes, a trait that puts her in a position both active and passive. Barbara is visited by her friend Peg soon after the murder indictment. Barbara laments her own failure saying: "I could never read the handwriting on the wall." This is apparent self-knowledge, but it plays more like the habit of a compulsive liar who tells her listeners what they probably want to hear. The film softens Graham to ease sympathy for her, eliminating her alleged drug abuse, while emphasizing the addiction of her last husband, Henry Graham. For the most part, however, the film confronts her amorality, especially in the opening sequences that show her as a scheming liar. Moreover, the film is breathtaking in its lack of concern for the murder victim, who seems a structuring absence throughout. Hollywood writer Robert Osborne, who later became the host of Turner Classic Movies, interviewed Susan Hayward and asked whether or not she believed Barbara Graham had been innocent. Hayward seemed hesitant to answer at first, but ultimately admitted that her research on the evidence and letters in the case led her to believe that the woman she had played was guilty.

Barbara Graham kept getting a stamp of approval on her “bouncing gal act,” complete with crocodile tears. “She'd pull out the good girl role from her repertoire,” the probation officer said, “the one yearning for respectability.” Detectives E.J. Vandergrift and Harry Strickland examined the scene of the crime of Mabel Monahan. Detective Strickland says, “Nobody's ever going to know for sure what happened. You're dealing with people who lie through their teeth. Their lives are made out of lies like you make a house out of cards. They'll lie about a stick of chewing gum.” In their desperation to find a safe that had never existed, Perkins, Santo and Graham had failed to search in Mabel Monahan's closet. They ran out empty-handed. Another detective, Roger Bailey, says, “The press dismissed the robbery motive immediately when we found the cash and jewelry, though we didn't dismiss it since the killer had no doubt simply missed what we turned up.” Behind bars, Barbara hooked up with a young girl named Donna Prowe, who was serving a term for manslaughter, arrested on a drunk driving charge. Barbara whispered to the girl, “I'm sweet on you, candy pants.” She asked “candy pants” if she knew anyone who might be willing to supply an alibi. Barbara said, “I'm willing to pay for it. If you talk to someone who might do it, all they have to do is say they spent the night with me in a motel. I'll give you a secret password so there won't be any mistake in who I'm talking to.” Barbara signed the note, “I love you, baby… Who do you know who'll sell me an alibi?” “Candy pants” wasn't as dumb as Barbara thought she was. Though flattered and impressed with the older, experienced Graham's attentions, Donna decided to play the plea for what it was worth. She made contact with Covney at the Burbank police. Covney secretly met with Donna in the attorney conference room of county jail, and Donna gave Covney the letter from Graham. “If I help you, can you get me out of here?”

After Barbara Graham, Jack Santo, and Emmett Perkins had been sentenced to death in the gas chamber, Graham met the press “with all the aplomb of a movie queen starring in a colossal production” (Los Angeles Times, 1953). Appeals dragged on for 18 months, continuing all the way to the execution day, June 3, 1955. "Count to 10 after you hear the cyanide tablets drop, and then take a deep breath," one officer whispered to Barbara. "It's easier that way." His advice provoked a sneering, "How the hell would you know?" Barbara Graham's last words were, "Good people are always so sure they're right."

Susan Hayward may have developed cancer from radioactive fallout from atmospheric atomic bomb tests while making The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell in 1956, with John Wayne in St. George, Utah. Greta Garbo, the enigmatic Swedish legend, dressed in a long black cape, flew in from Florida to share some personal health secrets she hoped might pull Susan Hayward through her final battle against cancer. Hayward was Greta Garbo's favorite actress. The nurse answered the front door bell did not recognize at first the mystery woman as Greta Garbo, and replied, “Miss Hayward can’t see anyone.” Garbo left very saddened after having seen Susan in such dire conditions. Edythe Marrenner Barker Chalkley, known to the world as Susan Hayward, rested peacefully at last on March, 14, 1975.

Susan Hayward: "The only way that I could get away from the awfulness of life was at the movies. I never thought of myself as a movie star. I'm just a working girl who worked her way to the top and never fell off." Susan Hayward lived like a star (The American Beauticians Congress voted her “the most beautiful  redhead in the world” in 1952), worked like a trouper, and died a heroine. She was buried next to her beloved husband on the grounds where they had built a Catholic church, in the red clay of Georgia. —"Brooklyn’s Scarlett: Susan Hayward" (2010) by Gene Arceri.

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