Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Favorite Actresses, #6: Susan Hayward
First Movie I Saw Her In: Top Secret Affair (1957)
Three Favorite Movies: The Lusty Men (1952); I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955); I Want to Live! (1958)
Honorable Mention: Garden of Evil (1954)
Favorite Performance: I Want to Live (1958)
Why I Like Her: Susan Hayward is my favorite 1950s actress, even though she’s a recent discovery for me. She opened up my interest in 1950s actresses whom I had previously categorized as the mousy housewife (June Allyson) and the breathless sexpot (Marilyn Monroe). There had to be something more than those options. Susan Hayward opened up the possibilities and also threw out my dopey generalizations about those aforementioned actresses and the 1950s in general.
I first decided I liked her when I saw her “lighter side” in the 1957 comedy Top Secret Affair. It turned out to be a great introduction because I was only aware of her as a gutsy, leave-it-all-on-the-screen actress. The fact that Hayward and co-star Kirk Douglas both reined in their intense acting styles and the resulting fun romantic comedy showed a side of Hayward’s not often seen. From there my exploration into Hayward’s career continued with her Oscar nominated roles. Hayward played real-life singers twice and received acclaim: 1952’s With a Song in My Heart and 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow. For the latter, Hayward finally conquered her fear of not being good enough and agreed to do her own singing; the results were stellar. The soundtrack CD of I’ll Cry Tomorrow features a Hayward vocal of the title tune not heard in the film but was issued on a LP compilation. Her voice is haunting and her phrasing is brilliant; here was a singer who knew the lyrics’ meaning, too.
Hayward exuded a tough but tender character that made her stand out from her contemporaries. Her performances are often over-the-top but when Hayward’s doing it, all is forgiven. She excelled at playing tragic, boozy characters—and they were often real people! Hayward’s Oscar-winning role as real-life convicted killer Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! has grown mythic in recent years and has been acknowledged as one of the 1950s greatest performances. I can count on one hand the number of performances where an actress or actor in question owns every frame in which they appear. Susan Hayward’s tremendous performance in I Want to Live is one of them. Her Oscar win was the culmination of twenty years of Hollywood toiling before she essentially rode off into the sunset with this career-defining role.
What keeps Susan Hayward from being higher on this list is the paucity of light, comedic roles. I know the talent was there and it’s a shame whenever an actor’s career isn’t fully realized. She accomplished a great deal but I’d love to have seen more diversity in her work. Besides, I'm a sucker for a gal with a great sense of humor. However, when I'm in that heavy drama mood, Susan's the one.