June 30, 1917 – Edythe Marrenner
“When you’re dead, you’re dead. No one is going to remember me when I’m dead. Oh, maybe a few friends will remember me affectionately. Being remembered is not the most important thing anyhow. It’s what you do when you are here that’s important.“
I was late in coming to appreciate Susan Hayward. When I was younger, I was not attracted to the turgid, soapy films that seemed to be her specialty. I love them now, of course. But back then, her films blended into one big melodrama about a pill popping alcoholic on death row who sings an overwrought song just before she dies. But, after revisiting Valley Of The Dolls (1967) a few years ago, I began looking at her films and I came to appreciate her stunning beauty, her style, and her portrayals of strong determined women.
She worked as a photographer’s model in New York City before traveling to Hollywood in 1937 to audition for David Selznick, hoping for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Silly girl. She was not even seriously considered, but Hayward managed to secure a contract after the screen-test and was given her new name by her first manager.
Hayward’s first film appearance was as “Starlet at Table” in Hollywood Hotel (1937). Hayward played a lot of minor roles. She later wrote that she “really paid her dues”. The determined Hayward finally earned a more interesting role in Beau Geste (1939) opposite Gary Cooper, the most beautiful man to appear in films.
She made a strong impression opposite John Wayne in Reap The Wild Wind (1942) and she played opposite Wayne again in The Fighting Seabees (1949).
Hayward’s performance in Smash-Up: The Story Of A Woman (1947) was an introduction to the type of strong-willed woman she would most often portray. It’s a film noir loosely based on the life of singer Dixie Lee, a rising nightclub singer who marries another singer, whose career takes off, then falls into alcoholism after giving up her career for him. Lees real-life husband was Bing Crosby. For this flick, her portrayal of an alcoholic club singer earned Hayward an Academy Award nomination.
Hayward received another Oscar nomination for her work in My Foolish Heart (1950). In 1951, she starred opposite handsome Gregory Peck in that nutty Biblical epic David And Bathsheba. Her third Academy Award nomination came for her really terrific performance in With A Song In My Heart (1952), based upon the real life story of singer Jane Froman who persevered after being seriously injured in a plane crash.
Hayward gave another strong performance in another biopic, this time as singer Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). Roth had been a star in the 1920s and 1930s who survived to write about her life as an alcoholic. Hayward was nominated again for an Oscar. It is my favorite of her performances. In it she sings for the first time on the screen, her throaty voice is so dramatic doing the songs Sing, You Sinners, When The Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along) and I’m Sitting On Top Of The World. She is supported by Ray Danton as the man whose death first sets her in a tailspin; and by Jo Van Fleet as her domineering mother.
Hayward finally won her Oscar, plus the NY Film Critics Award, and the Golden Globe for I Want To Live!, a slightly fictionalized story of Barbara Graham, an innocent woman sentenced to the death penalty. It also stars Simon Oakland, Stafford Repp, and Theodore Bikel. The screenplay by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz was adapted from letters written by Graham.
I really identify with Hayward. Oddly enough, I Want To Live!, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, and Smash-Up are chapter titles in my memoir Jockstraps & Vicodin. Perhaps Hayward was a bigger influence on my early life than I first gathered.
In 1972, Hayward was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. In 1956, she had worked on the film The Conquerors which was filmed in the Utah desert. The film location was 137 miles from a nuclear testing site that was fully in use at that time. Crew and cast of that movie included Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell, John Hoyt, and Pedro Armendáriz; all died from cancer. Of the 144 people involved in making this film, 91 developed cancer and 46 had died from the fucker by 1972. Maybe I got cancer from watching this film.
Hayward appeared in more than 60 films and many television programs. She left this world much too young, at just 57 years old in 1975.
Intensely private, she was perceived as cold, icy, aloof, and not one for small talk or press interviews, but she was known as a smart conversationalist among her small group of friends. She did not like socializing in crowds.
Hayward intensely disliked gay or effeminate males. Hayward and I have that in common… just kidding. I love a super-butch guy, but I am a sucker for a sissy too. She turned down several roles because gay George Cukor was the director. Susan was a John Wayne sort of girl. Ironic, because she would become a Gay Icon because of her emotional, hyper, overstrung portrayals, especially as Helen Lawson in Valley Of The Dolls, a universal Gay favorite. I think we should reclaim all the Golden Age of Hollywood homophobes as our own.
Directors appreciated Hayward’s professionalism on the set and her high standards for acting. She was considered easy to work with, but just not chummy after the film stopped rolling.
I find her to be one of the most beautiful female performers of her era. Hayward was greatly admired for her strong individualism. You have to admire that, even in a homophobe. Had she lived, Hayward would be celebrating her 103rd birthday today, the same day as Lena Horne who did not screen-test for Gone With The Wind.
June 30, 1917 – Lena Mary Calhoun Horne:
“It’s Not the Load That Breaks You Down, It’s the Way You Carry It.“
Horne had a primary occupation as a nightclub entertainer, a profession she pursued successfully around the world for more than 60 years, from the 1930s into the 1990s. Besides her club work, she also had a recording career that stretched from 1936 to 2000 that brought her three Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She appeared in 16 feature films and several shorts between 1938 and 1978. She performed occasionally on Broadway, including in her own Tony Award winning show Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music (1981/1982). She sang, acted and she charmed on radio and television.
Adding to the challenge of maintaining such an amazingly varied career was her life as an African-American woman facing racial and sexual discrimination personally and professionally. Her first job in the 1930s was at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where black people performed, but were not admitted as customers.
When Horne acted in the film Death Of A Gunfighter (1969), her character’s marriage to a white man (Richard Widmark) went unremarked in the script. This was rather astounding for the time.
Horne was a pivotal figure in the changing attitudes about race in the 20th century. Her middle-class upbringing and her musical training made her talent perfect for the popular music of the day, rather than the Blues and Jazz more commonly associated with people of color. Her photogenic beauty was close enough to the Caucasian ideal that she was often encouraged to try to ”pass” for white, something she consistently refused to do. Yet, her position in the middle of our country’s social struggle enabled her to become a true leader in that fight. Horne worked hard, speaking out in favor of integration and raising money for Civil Rights causes. Horne lived a life that was never short on conflict, but that could be seen ultimately as a sort of triumph.
Horne was closely associated with the songs of her best friend, openly gay composer, Billy Strayhorn.
She gave us the legacy of her music and those images of her stunning beauty. She somehow managed to stay absolutely ravishing until her final curtain call in spring 2010.
She is my father’s favorite movie star. He has a story of filling her automobile’s tank at the gas station where he worked on La Cienega Boulevard in 1944-46.
Like Hayward, Horne celebrates her 103rd birthday today.
Horne embraced queer people and stood up for LGBTQ Rights. Maybe Hayward would have come around to appreciating her gay fans. I like to think so.