Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Susan Hayward: Diminish at Your Own Risk

Seventh in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

They don't come much stronger, tougher or lovelier (and yes, sweeter) than Susan Hayward. That face, that form, that hair! She was a force to be reckoned with the day she decided to take a little trip from Brooklyn to Hollywood. Maybe it was those Brooklyn roots that caused her to have to continually fight for both good roles and respect, but it also taught her a thing or two about holding her own and winning a fight like a tiger.

Early Days

Susan (born Edythe Marrener in 1917) grew up in poor circumstances in Brooklyn, NY. With her pugnacious nature and flaming hair, I see her as a kind of kid sister to Clara Bow. Susan was a tomboy as a girl, but boy did she grow up. Before deciding to be a movie star she made a tidy living as a print model. Hollywood always likes a pretty face, so as part of the worldwide search for Scarlett O'Hara, Susan  was brought to Hollywood to test for the role.
Susan during her modelling days
Somewhere between the time she left home and arrived in Hollywood and secured a screen test for the role of Scarlett, Edythe Marrener became Susan Hayward. Although she didn't get the part of Scarlett, she decided to stay in Hollywood and give the movies a whirl. Aren't you glad she did? After the failed test, Susan signed a contract at Warner Brothers Studio and eventually received some small, sometimes showy, roles. For almost 10 years Susan constantly lobbied for better and bigger roles. Everyone acknowledged she was pretty, but no one took her seriously as a dramatic actress. This was a battle Susan fought for almost her entire professional life.
"I am an ACTRESS!"

"Smash Up" and More

Finally, in 1947, Susan got the kind of role she longed for. As a lonely, alcoholic wife (who gives up her career for hubby and child) in "Smash Up - The Story of a Woman," she tears up the screen and gives her first perfect performance as a woman whose life is wrecked by liquor. The film also features a great powder room cat fight between Susan, as the wife, and Marsha Hunt as the much too efficient and ever- present secretary. For her work in this film, Susan received her first Oscar nomination.

The world finally takes notice in "Smash Up"
Now the meatier roles that she had fought so long for finally started rolling in. "They Won't Believe Me," "My Foolish Heart", for which she received her second Oscar nomination, and "I Can Get it For You Wholesale" all confirmed that Susan Hayward was a real dramatic actress. Still, she was often unfavorably, and unfairly, compared to actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and especially Bette Davis, all who were still active while Susan was coming into her own. Imagine having to climb over that trio for a good part? But Susan had not spent over 10 years laboring in Hollywood to take a back seat to anyone. No matter how good she was, she always had to prove herself to non-believers. And for every "Smash Up," there was a "David and Bathsheba" as well as endless cheesecake photos. Would Bette Davis ever have been made to play a role like Bathsheba? Probably not, but being beautiful was a blessing and a curse for Susan.
Bathsheba: Can you imagine Bette Davis doing this role?
"With a Song in My Heart" and "I'll Cry Tomorrow" and 2 More Oscar Nominations

In the 1950's, a pair of dramatic singing stars gave Susan two of her best roles: As Jane Froman, who was crippled as the result of an airplane crash in "With a Song in My Heart," and as troubled and alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in "I'll Cry Tomorrow." For each role she was again nominated for an Academy Award.
As Jane Froman in "With a Song in My Heart"
Her performance in "I'll Cry Tomorrow" is especially harrowing, making her performance in "Smash Up" look like a dress rehearsal for the role of a woman who was a genuine down and dirty alcoholic mess. The script pulled no punches and Susan made you feel every inch of Lillian Roth's degradation, pain and triumph. Not only that, she did her own singing in this one and she was fantastic. This is my favorite Susan Hayward performance.
There was no white-washing the despair and degradation
 of an alcoholic in "I'll Cry Tomorrow"
"I Want to Live"

This is the film Susan Hayward is best known for and is the role for which she finally won the Oscar in 1958. As party girl and death row inmate, Barbara Graham, Susan got the meatiest dramatic role of her career. Her fight for life and her eventual death in the gas chamber gave her a chance to show what she was capable of. Graham was a drug addict, prostitute and small time criminal, but she was probably innocent of murder. Anyone who has watched Susan's final scenes will never forget them. Unfortunately, this was her last good role. After this film, Susan was respected, but quality roles in the 1960s for women were hard to come by. Thankfully, she did not go the horror route like Davis and Crawford.
After 4 nominations for Best Actress, the 5th time proved the charm

The Rest

Susan continued to work through the 1960s and even did some television, but it remained a hard time for actresses, especially ones of a certain age. A few of Susan's notable later films are:

The Conqueror
A completely idiotic film that has John Wayne cast as Genghis Khan, it was panned by the press and avoided by the public.The only notable thing about this film is that it was shot in the Utah desert not far from a government nuclear test site in Nevada. Director Dick Powell and stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armandariz and cast member John Hoyt all died of cancer. 90 cast and crew members out of 220 who worked on that film eventually died of cancer.

Where Love has Gone

Another sub-par sudser, but notable because it put Susan and Bette Davis together in the same movie. They reportedly could not stand one another (Susan was not the type to kiss anyone's ring). Some say it was because Bette,who was only 9 years older than Susan, played her mother and looked the part. Who wouldn't be just a tiny bit  jealous of Susan looking so good at 47?

Valley of the Dolls

Yet another stinker, but one that has become a cult favorite. Stepping in for an ailing Judy Garland at the last minute, Susan looked beautiful as an aging star. She wiped the floor with the cast of young performers, and even got to have another powder room cat fight (only Patty Duke walked off with the wig).

Thankfully, Susan had a happy second marriage. Her first marriage to actor Jess Barker produced twin boys, but it was tempestuous and troubled. The second time around Susan hit the jackpot and was happily married to a Georgia native (a state she later made her home) at the time of her death from brain cancer in 1975. Her last public appearance was at the 1973 Academy Awards, where she presented the Best Actress Award. Although she was ill and frail, her fighting spirit and inner beauty, as well as her outer beauty, were still evident.

Never underestimate Susan Hayward. She fought all of her professional life like the tiger she was to prove her artistry. Thankfully, she believed in herself from the very beginning.

Here's a very nice YouTube Tribute to Susan Hayward that showcases her beauty and charisma!


Jan Miner said...

Very interesting entry. Lots of tidbits I did not know. Thanks!

FlickChick said...

She was one lady I would have liked to have known.

ClassicBecky said...

Excellent bio of one of my favorite actresses. I saw her audition scene for GWTW -- she was lovely, but too young and unsure, and had not come into her own yet. I really believe that if she had been just 5 years older (*Warning - blasphemy ahead*) -- she would have rivalled Vivien Leigh as a marvelous Scarlett.

I always loved the way Susan walked and held her posture, straight shoulders always, hands often clasped little above the waist. I read that this was a deliberate posture, learned from her admiration of flamenco dancers.

I think my favorite of the young Susan's movies is "My Foolish Heart." My favorite of her mature actress movies is "I Want To Live." Why did this spectacular woman stop getting any decent roles after that performance? She was 47, but she always looked gorgeous in her 30's and 40's. Never unstood it.

Diane said...

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful strong woman that I loved. Some of the things you wrote about I did not know. I love this series to strong women. Thanks again Flick are the best!

Anonymous said...

I bet you are a strong woman..Flick Chick. Why don't you do a bio of yourself, we would all like to see that.

FlickChick said...

Becky - I agree she is Scarlett personified and would have made an excellent choice just a few years later. Good thing Viv was around. As for Susan, unfortunately, roles for older women (who still looked fabulous) were few and far between during her maturity.

@ Diane - as always, you always make me feel so worthy!

@ anonymous - I can write my bio in 2 sentences: She went to the movies. She never came back.

rakerake said...

Mention should have been made to House of Strangers--an Edward G. Robinson flick but Susan was neer better. A plurality of scenes from the wonderful visual mix were taken from that movie.