In marking today’s centenary of the birth of a singular and enduring Hollywood star from Brooklyn who was a potent box-office favorite in the 1950s after steadily building a career through perseverance and talent, historian David Shipman’s evaluation in his 1972 The Great Movie Stars: The International Years is acutely clear-eyed: “It’s easier for a man. For women to have a long career in films requires superhuman energy, guts and determination. The longest surviving ladies usually betray in their performances something of their off-screen battles: impossible not to believe that Joan Crawford hasn’t browbeaten producers the same way she harries her leading men. Susan Hayward [1917-1975] is a small-scale Crawford. The final effect is less of domination than of pugnacity. Ability isn’t lacking, though it hasn’t the individuality of Bette Davis at her peak. Like Crawford, and to a lesser degree Barbara Stanwyck. Hayward is an entirely predictable actress. It was the aggressive, meaty roles of these actresses that she tried to inherit, and in the ’50s she had the field to herself.” In Hayward’s case, predictable is hardly a pejorative: movie lovers across the decades have responded to her directness, her authoritative and accessible sexiness readily captured by the camera, and the way she could mix vulnerability and steel with commitment to both potboiler and prime material. Twilight Time lays claim to three Hayward efforts from her constantly busy 1950s output displaying her vibrant versatility and demonstrating how she could both generously share the screen with equally powerful male co-stars and yet frequently dominate them as well. Two are Fox Cinemascope outdoor collaborations with director Henry Hathaway, the brooding and sinister Mexico-filmed Western Garden of Evil (1954), teaming her with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark as a strong-willed woman who recruits some stranded soldiers-of-fortune on a high-stakes rescue mission into hostile territory, and Woman Obsessed (1959), a storm-tossed melodrama with a rustic setting in which struggling farm widow Hayward’s attraction to a charming but mysterious stranger (Stephen Boyd) evolves into a fight to keep her family intact.
Chronologically falling between these two is Hayward’s crown jewel, her throat-clutching, unshielded and unyielding tough-broad portrayal of the real-life convict Barbara Graham, sentenced to die in the gas chamber (wrongly and unjustly, the film posits) in director Robert Wise’s riveting I Want to Live! (1958). “It is easily her best, most observant performance,” Shipman observes. It brought her a long-desired Best Actress Academy Award® (following four previous nominations between 1947 and 1955) and remains one of the cinema’s most impassioned arguments against the death penalty, rendered on screen with a disturbing attention to both physical detail and emotional toll. Hayward was all in, as Jeff Stafford reports in his TCM.com essay on the movie: “Her main motivation for accepting the role evolved from her extensive research. In Susan Hayward: Portrait of a Survivor by Beverly Linet, the actress said, ‘I was fascinated by the contradictory traits of personality in this strangely controversial woman who had had an extraordinary effect on everyone she met. She was first a juvenile, then an adult delinquent, arrested on bad check charges, perjury, soliciting and a flood of misdemeanors. But somewhere along the line she was a good wife and mother. I read her letters, sometimes literate, often profound. She loved poetry and music, both jazz and classical. None of this seemed to square with the picture drawn of her at the time of the trial. I studied the final transcript. I became so fascinated by the woman I simply had to play her’….Hayward remained aloof from her co-stars [including Simon Oakland, Virginia Vincent and Theodore Bikel] between scenes and didn't engage in socializing after work; it was her way of maintaining concentration in the role. For the controversial execution scene when Graham is walked to the gas chamber, Hayward was blindfolded and had to convey all her emotions and thoughts through her stance, subtle body movements, and the way she walked. It's a powerful scene and Roman Freulich, a still photographer assigned to shoot publicity shots of Hayward on the set, recalled being moved to tears by the performance. Yet, when he visited Hayward's dressing room directly after the scene, he found her 'dry eyed and humming a little tune.'” For birthday honoree Hayward, it was all a day’s work and a long career’s peak achievement. Today’s final day of TT’s Fox Promotion is a last opportunity to secure our Garden of Evil Blu-ray and Woman Obsessed DVD [offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/15420/WOMAN-OBSESSED-1959-SPECIAL-PROMOTION/] at 50% off current list price. They – and especially the I Want to Live! Blu-ray – can fuel a blazing centennial celebration.