Boozy Hayward lives
by Tavo Amador
Predicting what role a classic Hollywood star will be remembered for is difficult. Many fans think of Susan Hayward (1917-75) as Helen Lawson, the tough musical comedy diva of Valley of the Dolls (1967), a part that came late in her career. At that point, she had been in movies for nearly three decades, and from 1947-64 had been a major star, specializing in tearful melodramas in the tradition of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck.
One of her most famous and successful films, I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), has become available in DVD and captures the essence of Hayward's bravura acting style. As vocalist and early movie star Lillian Roth (1910-80), whose struggles with alcoholism were chronicled in her best-selling memoirs, Hayward scored. Roth had been a child singing star in vaudeville and headlined several pre-code Hollywood films, notably Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille's Madame Satan (30) and Ladies They Talk About (33), a landmark women-in-prison story starring Stanwyck.
Jo Van Fleet plays Lillian's stage mother Katie, the driving force behind her career. Over Mother's objections, Lillian was planning to give up stardom to marry childhood sweetheart, attorney David Tredman (the gorgeous Ray Danton). She turned to drinking following his premature death. Her intake increases, and after an all-night bender, she wakes up married to a soldier/fan (Don Taylor). Their drinking begins affecting her work. He walks out and she meets, then marries, another boozer (Richard Conte), a physical and emotional abuser who exploits her. Lillian struggles on her own to control her drinking, but fails. She hits a horrendously low bottom, losing her money and forced to live with her mother in a small tenement apartment. She contemplates suicide, but finally, with great difficulty, goes to Alcoholics Anonymous. There she finds help and true love from her sponsor (Eddie Albert).
Helen Deutsch and Jay Richard Kennedy's screenplay isn't subtle, which suits Hayward's intense style perfectly. She had a lovely contralto voice and handles the musical numbers, including "Sing You Sinners," "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along," and especially, "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," effectively. (When she portrayed singer Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart (52), Froman insisted on doing the vocals, so many fans were surprised at Hayward's fine singing.)
More importantly, with searing intensity, Hayward shows the horror of alcoholism and its physical and emotional toll. Her detoxification scenes are moving, as powerful as those by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (45), Hollywood's first serious look at the disease. Hayward had played alcoholics in Oscar-nominated performances in Smash Up: The Story of a Woman (47) and Beware My Foolish Heart (49), yet under Daniel Mann's direction, her work here is fresh, and it earned her a fourth Academy Award nod, which she lost to Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo .
Van Fleet is brilliant as Katie: manipulative, loving, desperate for a better life for her daughter and herself. She's complex: sympathetic, monstrous, sometimes both at once. Her scenes with Hayward crackle. Danton, Albert, and especially Conte are all good. Only towards the end, when Lillian, in recovery, appears on television's This Is Your Life to tell the public about her illness, does the film turn bathetic. Nonetheless, contemporary audiences – especially women and gay men – wept watching Hayward gallantly striding up the aisle to the stage.
I'll Cry Tomorrow presented a sanitized version of Roth's life. Among other things, she was married eight times. But it had a huge impact on changing the popular perception of alcoholism, especially for women, from a moral failing to a controllable if incurable disease. The movie was a box-office smash.
Three years later, Hayward would finally win a Best Actress Oscar for Robert Wise's compelling I Want To Live! She gave a characteristically gutsy performance as convicted murder accessory Barbara Graham, the first woman in California given a death sentence. Former co-star Gregory Peck quipped, "We can all relax now. Susie finally got what she's been chasing for 20 years." He was referring to her having been among the many unknowns producer David Selznick had tested for Scarlett O'Hara. She was determined to prove he made a mistake by not casting her.
Although Hayward worked steadily in films and television after her win, she did little that was memorable, except for the high camp Where Love Has Gone (1964), billed first over Davis, and Valley of the Dolls.
Her final public appearance seemed lifted from one of her movies. She and former co-star Charlton Heston presented the Best Actress Oscar at the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. Tabloids had been screaming that she was dying, but she looked sensational on television. It was later revealed that she wore a copper red wig that resembled her own famous hair, and that Nolan Miller's stunning green gown was designed to hide her emaciated figure. She was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. With Heston's help, she walked out on stage, knowing she could have a seizure at any moment, and earned a tremendous ovation. She died less than a year later, at 57.