What Hayward Wanted
“Susan Hayward was a trouper who never saw any reason to do anything other than sock it to us,” film historian David Thomson wrote in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. “It is a credit to her determination and uncompromising directness that she lasted so long. Indeed, her jaw had the firmness of a girl who came nearer than many to playing Scarlett O’Hara and who resolved to show everyone she could have had the part.” Throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, her repertoire of defiant and suffering characters, whether with caustic quips, torchy songs or boozy desperation, resulted in Oscar® nominations for Smash-Up – The Story of a Woman (1947), My Foolish Heart (1949), With a Song in My Heart (1952) and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). So there was no question that with regard to her blistering, badass biopic I Want to Live! (1958), Susan Hayward wanted to win the Best Actress Academy Award®. To play Barbara Graham, the career criminal – perjurer, addict, prostitute, thief – convicted for murder and grabbed national headlines when she became the first woman executed in California’s gas chamber, Hayward reportedly soaked up everything she could about her real-life counterpart, studying her letters, adopting her habits and marveling at her subject’s love for literature and jazz. She even got down in the mud, metaphorically speaking, during the 1958 awards campaign season, according to an anecdote catalogued by Inside Oscar®: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards® scribes Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, noting a friendly rib made to the talent behind a fellow United Artists award contender that year, The Defiant Ones: “[Director Stanley] Kramer ran a full-page photo of just [Sidney] Poitier and [Tony] Curtis’ hands, cuffed together, rising out of a river. This shot became so familiar that Susan Hayward and her I Want to Live! director, Robert Wise [also nominated], ran a gag ad showing the two of tem together while standing in a river.” Hayward’s work and the film surrounding it didn’t need campaign trappings because, not just a vehicle for a star, it emerged as something quite more. Because Wise and screenwriters Nelson Gidding and Don M. Mankiewicz gave considerable screen time to Graham’s several pleas for commuting her sentence counterpointed by the stark preparations undertaken for execution by gas, the film became, as David Shipman notes in The Story of Cinema, “a harrowing plea for the abolition of capital punishment.” For jazz aficionados, its scintillating, pressure-cooking Johnny Mandel music was performed by some of the tops in the profession, including Gerry Mulligan’s Jazz Combo and AllMusic’s Stephen Cook reports, “a cadre of top West Coast players like trumpeter Jack Sheldon, trombonist Frank Rosolino, reed player Bill Holman, bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Shelly Manne.” On Oscar® night Hayward took her victory walk to the podium, thanked her Smash-Up and I Want to Live! producer Walter Wanger and, being honored for playing a tough customer whose fights to the very end, succinctly proved Thomson’s point with poised directness. Her sensational performance – plus the Mandel score on an Isolated Track, are on crisp hi-def display on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray debuting November 15. Preorders open November 2. More TT helpings of the prolific Hayward are also on offer in Garden of Evil and Woman Obsessed (1959, available on DVD here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/15420/WOMAN-OBSESSED-1959/).