My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1949: Susan Hayward in "My Foolish Heart"

A very distinct hope was shared by millions of women, professional actresses, amateurs and dreamers in America and all around the world between the middle of 1936 and the beginning of 1939 – that of one day becoming the face and the body of the most idealized, coveted and influential fictitious female character in the history of modern storytelling. After the release of Margaret Mitchell’s classic bestseller Gone with the Wind, the name and fate of the headstrong, beautiful, selfish but also captivating Southern Belle called Scarlett O’Hara turned into an unparalleled phenomenon around the world – and when David O. Selznick acquired the movie rights to this saga of the Old South, an equally unprecedented search for the ideal actress who would combine the fire, the appeal, the charm and the beauty to satisfy the countless different ideas and perceptions that existed of the central character already, began. Over 1,400 candidates were interviewed, ranging from hopeful wanna-be stars to more established actresses but David O. Selznick seemed determined to cast a performer who was still unfamiliar to movie audiences, avoiding a Scarlett that was shaped by the personality of a star and the perception of the viewers – and so contenders like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck were out of the running before the race even began. It was a highly unusual casting process in which fame and star power were only of secondary importance and which allowed the room and the time to find the perfect actress for a role that was already strongly shaped in the minds of millions of movie goers by now – talent scouts were sent to the Southern States to look at possible contenders and various experienced but not necessarily undeniable actresses were given closely observed screen tests that very often not actually gave them a real chance for the part but rather helped David O. Selznick to develop a feeling for the qualities that were needed from an actress to play the character of Scarlett O’Hara and fulfill all the demands that this role and the overall production were asking for. It was a mostly unsatisfying search during which Selznick constantly tried to convince himself of certain candidates but remained skeptical – until the most unlikely contender, a largely unknown British actress, crossed the Atlantic and won the part of this most American character, turning her from phenomenon into Hollywood legend when Gone with the Wind became the most successful and most viewed movie of all time. But even if the casting of Vivien Leigh destroyed the dreams of many other actresses, the casting process itself helped to create new careers nonetheless – David O. Selznick might have considered Lana Turner’s screen tests ‘completely inadequate’ but they still helped her to pass to another level on her road to stardom. And another beneficiary was Edythe Marrenner who, like Vivien Leigh, came to Hollywood specifically to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara – it was a hope that was short-lived but Edythe would leave her position as a photographer model behind, change her name to Susan Hayward and work her way up the career ladder, becoming one of Hollywood’s most popular female stars during the following two decades. It was a discovery that did not lead to any overnight success – at the beginning of her career, Susan Hayward was primarily cast in secondary parts, uncredited or even cut out of the picture completely but in 1939, the same year Gone with the Wind enjoyed its triumphant release, director William Wellman finally helped her to achieve a higher level of visibility when he cast her opposite Gary Cooper and Ray Milland in the popular hit Beau Geste. After this, she began to establish herself as a beloved leading lady on the screen, occasionally working opposite the most popular male stars of her time like Gregory Peck or John Wayne – but even if Susan Hayward was a fitting opponent to these actors, she nonetheless built her reputation as an actress who was willing to show the despair, faults and misery of her characters mostly by being the clear central point of her ‘women pictures’ around which all other aspects and characters would revolve. Like other popular contemporary actresses such as Rosalind Russell or Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward typically utilized her distinct personality in stories that not only completely depended on these personalities but also focused all their attention on it, living and dying with the performance of its leading lady. In these central roles, she displayed the necessary confidence to work from the outside first and later added the demanded emotions but more than that she always aimed to emphasize the pain and the suffering of her tragic creations, going overboard with expressions and feelings, letting every gesture be broader than the one before – few other actresses of her area were able to use such a distinctive and exaggerated style to their own advantage in the same way, finding critical acclaim in movies that fitted their complete structure entirely to the talents of its leading star. And so it does not seem surprising that the Academy always reacted the most generous when Susan Hayward found such a vehicle and such a chance to overwhelm her environment with both her acting style and her dominant personality – she received her first nomination for playing drunk and hopeless in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, was even more drunk and even more helpless in I’ll cry tomorrow and later unpredictable and hopeless in I want to live! Her work in With a Song in my Heart might not fit into this pattern but the lack of alcohol in this performance was more than compensated by her various musical numbers that allowed her to use her usual domineering screen presence for different reasons but with the same effect. Most of all, the Academy seemed to prefer the unusual side of Susan Hayward, the woman who was almost destroyed by her own faults or had to overcome personal misery – and while men did play a certain part in these developments, they never met her character on an equal level. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, With a Song in my Heart and I’ll cry tomorrow all featured a certain level of romantic storylines but they were never given first priority and her co-stars were similarly never on the same level of star power and screen personality and I want to live! was a star-vehicle from start to finish in which Susan Hayward never had to share the spotlight for a single second, not even for a romantic storyline. It is therefore not surprising that Susan-Hayward-pictures never received much recognition outside of Susan Hayward’s central and emphasized performance – she never appeared in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture and Thelma Ritter was the only actress who was ever able to receive an Oscar nomination for appearing in one of Susan Hayward’s showcases. It seems that the Academy preferred Susan Hayward on her own, starring in unconventional surroundings and playing characters that defied common appearances in the Best Actress category. But what about the movie and the performance that brought her the second Oscar nomination of her career? My Foolish Heart gives the impression of following this pattern since it is also a movie that was undoubtedly designed as a showcase for its leading lady, having only been nominated for one additional Oscar for its original song and it is also a story that features a woman under the influence of alcohol, standing in front of the ruins of her own life. But My Foolish Heart also has another side – it was the one time when the Academy felt enamored by a Susan Hayward whose life was circling around love and relationships as her character is constantly defined by her longing for romance and her grief over its loss and furthermore her movie did not offer a complete and natural one-woman-show but instead gave Susan Hayward and her male co-star a similiar chance for success and depended equally on the effects of their performances, providing not only her but also her leading man with the needed room and opportunities to develop their characters and their intentions, a circumstance that was emphasized even stronger by the casting of Dana Andrews who was not the same kind of pale co-star that so often appeared opposite Susan Hayward during her career but rather a charismatic and popular screen presence himself. But what did all this mean for Susan Hayward's actual performance? Did she succeed in showing her personality in a more conventional surrounding, in a world that was not able to catch up with her willingness to portray the flaws and faults of her characters and instead asked her to underline the common character of her role, or did the overall story offer her too little chances to craft a woman who is defined by more aspects than her search for love and affection?

As a short story, Uncle Wiggily goes to Connecticut was a popular commentary on the lies and false dreams in America’s suburb that told of Eloise Wengler who spends the afternoon drinking and reminiscing about her past and the love she lost while mistreating those around her, including her husband and her little daughter. Rewritten into My Foolish Heart, the story of the movie mostly focused on the flashbacks between Eloise and her lover Walt, dropping all social observations for the sake of a conventional love story that features happiness, misery, death and a child received out of wedlock and was rated negatively by most critics at the time of its release and also J. D. Salinger, the author of Uncle Wiggiliy goes to Connecticut but turned into a financial hit nonetheless, most likely due to the casting of two popular stars in the central parts. And the critics were right that My Foolish Heart lacks imagination and complexity, concentrating its attention too strongly on the trivial sections of its script – and giving Susan Hayward a part that too seldom benefitted from her willingness to let herself be completely accustomed to unusual circumstances and to unleash a combination of anger and frustration with distinct intensity. My Foolish Heart did not see her as an accused murderess, an invalid singer, a drunk singer or just a drunk but mainly wanted her to be an average girl next door with a head full of romance and a lack of ambition for any other aspects of life. It’s a task she was able to fulfill with a surprising lack of vanity but her screen personality never advanced the thin layers of the script and she was often not able to hide her own maturity behind the masque of girlish naivety. So it is not surprising that she is most effective in those scenes that stick the closest to its source material and that give her the chance to craft a character that rises with her willingness to be completely unlikeable whenever a role demands it – the bookend moments of the story during which Eloise gets a visits from her former best friend Mary Jane and drunkenly laments her current life and mourns the loss of what could have been. Few actresses were able to realize lines like ‘I’m insured’ after having almost been hit with a car or ‘Who said to forgive is divine? Probably nobody I’d care to meet anyhow’ in the same straight-forward way that never drew any attention to them but still exposed many facets and attitudes of the character at the same time. In her first scenes, Susan Hayward is able to shine with all the characteristics that came to her rather easily – she is spiteful but never mean, drunk but never a caricature and obviously suffers from a yet untold past while avoiding any obvious attempts to gain sympathy for either her performance or her character. It’s an intriguing entrance of a personality that may never become as interesting as those early scenes suggest but Susan Hayward’s strength in those moments is still able to create just enough curiosity about Eloise and what happened to her that the comparatively pale flashback scenes benefit from them even more than from the actual love story itself. When Eloise spits out her dislike for her husband or rejects him on the phone, Susan Hayward portrays her without any broader context, focusing on her aversion without trying to give any explanation, simply showing a marriage that clearly came to its end and existed without love or affection for a long time already. But she also finds more tender moments during her talk with Mary Jane – suddenly, her former lover Walt becomes a genuine presence and Susan Hayward plays her regret and inner pain over his loss with a touching quietness but also with the routine of a woman who has been having these thoughts constantly for the last years but is still unable and unwilling to let them go. Susan Hayward shows that Eloise is drowning not only in sorrow but also in self-pity, blaming her husband for her own reluctance to find a new phase in her life and refusing to be the kind of mother she could be – she is as honest in those moments as the script allows her, certainly resting on various clichés but also succeeding in presenting a woman who has given up any illusions and dreams, almost proud of her own bitterness and resistance to those around her. In those moments, despite the almost apathetic nature of Eloise, Susan Hayward’s acting style finds a fresh spontaneity and feels much more alive than in many scenes to come – her way of reacting to the news that her husband wants to leave her or learns that Mary Jane knows about his plan to take their child with him is done without any exaggerated histrionics and constantly stays true to the character that Susan Hayward has been creating so far, finding her somewhere between hate and confusion, letting her get accustomed to the new circumstances of her life while clearly unable to organize her thoughts in such a short time. But from this moment on, My Foolish Heart leaves this captivating structure behind and lets Eloise look back on her life, insisting that she used to be a ‘nice girl’ and recalling her relationship with Walt and its tragic ending – a step that maybe added a new aspect of Eloise's personality to the story and could have created an intriguing background to this character but unfortunately stayed too focused on the surface of a thin and underdeveloped romance, denying Susan Hayward many chances to strengthen her portrayal even if she was able to add occasional moments of haunting intensity. 

During her career, Susan Hayward has often emphasized the commonness of extraordinary characters, making their flaws a natural part of their personality instead of trying to find deeper reasons. But during the flashbacks of My Foolish Heart, she is asked to only highlight the commonness of a purely common character – a task that was not unsolvable for her but the script of My Foolish Heart too often guides Eloise through a variety of inexpressive scenes that neither let Susan Hayward go beyond the limits of the character nor answers any principal questions on its development. The introduction of Eloise as a ‘nice girl’ at a party where she is humiliated by a classmate who ridiculed her dress does not really help Susan Hayward to present Eloise as the plain and ordinary woman from Ohio she is supposed to be – most of all, Susan Hayward's personality never fits this description and premise and her strength on the screen is also too dominant for a woman who is mainly a vague presence but while this strength weakens Susan Hayward's work in some aspects it also helped her achieve the important task of carrying and shaping My Foolish Heart without surrendering too strongly to the sentimentality of the story. In the same way, the introduction of Dana Andrews’s Walt also works for and against Susan Hayward – the two actors share a chemistry that might not truly resemble a grand attraction, a great love at first sight that would change these two characters forever, but still possesses a natural innocence and suaveness and right from the start Dana Andrews displays the needed appealing charm that explains why Eloise is so immediately smitten with this stranger. But the love that is presented on the screen still follows too many clichéd formulas and Susan Hayward constantly stays within the boundaries of these formulas – even though the character of Eloise would have allowed a display of many darker and unconventional nuances. Susan Hayward’s quick and positive response to Walt’s suggestion that they could dance outside already indicates that Eloise is a woman who is not afraid to actively pursue a relationship, defying the thoughts and perceptions that would accompany a woman like this. But mostly, Susan Hayward often faces challenges that might appear rather simple but still cause difficulties for an actress of her decisive screen presence – she lacks the needed humor and naturalness to be convincing as a young college girl who is reading poetry with her roommate and impatiently awaits the phone call from Walt, eagerly running to the phone when he finally does call and bursting with joy when he asks her for a date. Such a single-mindedness combined with youthful spirit does not come naturally to Susan Hayward and her efforts are too obvious in these moments – but she again improves when she is alone with Dana Andrews, leaving age and mannerism behind and completely focusing on the intimacy between these two characters. The scenes between Walt and Eloise in his apartment offer an effective combination of humor and sexual tension but the movie again works against Susan Hayward when the date suddenly makes an unlikely turn and Eloise ends up washing Walt’s dishes, again underlining the flaws of the script but also Susan Hayward’s inability to make the conventional aspects of her role entirely plausible. She struggles with the same kind of problems during an awkward crying scene when she has to face her disappointed mother who cannot believe that her daughter would be thrown out of school for meeting a man at night but as the movie goes on, Susan Hayward finally begins to feel more comfortable in her part as the drama of the script slowly replaces the purely romantic aspects – she feels entirely believable in her mindset to keep her pregnancy a secret from Walt because she wants him to marry her because he wants to and not because he has to. She also finds little moments of surprising clarity in a scene on the steps outside the house when Eloise pretends that her ankle hurts to distract from the pains of her pregnancy – the way she looks at Walt, earnest, fearful but also loving shows the basic feelings of this woman as she faces an uncertain future. And Susan Hayward is just as effective in a later scene when she meets Walt in a bar for the last time before he goes to war and Eloise has to fight the urge to tell him the truth while remaining doubtful just how true his intentions really are and if she really can count on his love and support in the future, letting her give a darker angle to this romance and enabling her to add more maturity but also intriguing intensity to her part. And her later dramatic moments only further evince the impressions that Susan Hayward had been displaying for the entire running time before – that of an almost unknown subtlety. Susan Hayward never appeared as an actress who wanted to make a secret out of her emotions, shouting her anger or pain from the top of her lungs more than once – but in My Foolish Heart, she remained surprisingly calm and introverted, from her feelings of love to Walt to her inner doubts and fear right to her grief when he is suddenly torn out of her life. She reads his final letters with a touching display of disbelief and sorrow while her quiet tears as she sits down at a party are much more effective than any loud depiction of grief could ever be. But even if Susan Hayward finds an absorbing containment in her performance, she still cannot overcome the fact that very often Eloise is rather pale instead of quiet – her character only exists for the sake of finding and mourning a man and is never guided by any darker aspects that the script might be offering and that Susan Hayward would most likely have been very eager to embrace. After their first date, Walt comes to the conclusion that Eloise is not the kind of girl for one night and insults her with the intention of making her leave and forget him – but Eloise comes back to him, just as she walked with him into his apartment in the first place, always willing to take the relationship further and not asking for a wedding ring in return. She also slips out of school at night and brings him back inside and in a later scene when Walt tells her that she could remain with him and return the next day, Eloise is also willing to stay, fully aware of what he is asking – Eloise’s active persuasion of this love affair and her decision to go to bed with him despite not being married is never condemned by the movie but simultaneously does not offer Susan Hayward the opportunity to explore these parts of the character further. It was a wasted opportunity to give more layers to an unfortunately rather flat character and Susan Hayward, too, did not explore these grounds of her role any further. But most of all she suffers from the lack of explanation that the script gives her in the final parts of the movie – My Foolish Heart never answers the question why Eloise is not a nice girl anymore or why she turned into the drunk that can be seen in the bookend-scenes. The loss of Walt clearly affects her personality but the gap between the Eloise of the past and the Eloise of the present is still too wide and misses a clear connection. Most of all, the movie again missed the chance to give Eloise more depth when it rushed through her decision to renew her relationship with her old boyfriend with whom she broke up after she met Walt and who would become her estranged husband – does she still love him in some way? Is she only looking for any form of human contact? Or only for a father for her unborn child? Susan Hayward plays the scene with him in the car with a constant change of rhythm that is unfortunately unable to solve this mystery or create the aura that could support an enigma like this and while she might again be beautifully restrained when she tells Mary Jane that she has no idea what she should do next since she cannot tell her father of her pregnancy and she has also no other person to turn to, it is unfortunately another wasted opportunity that leaves too many questions unanswered, making it often difficult for her to find the right tone for her performance and the different moments within it.

Overall, the conventional tone of My Foolish Heart which also presented a mostly conventional character that never took advantage of its unconventional core, made it hard for Susan Hayward to use her usual strengths on the screen and she remained surprisingly colorless for most parts of the story, both unwilling and unable to go beyond the limits of an uninspired love story, always crafting Eloise in parts but not as a whole. Her chemistry with Dana Andrews is effective and satisfying but her best moments on the screen are those that see her without him, dealing with the loss of his character and the consequences of her own actions. Most of all, the single-mindedness of the part was both under- and overwhelming for Susan Hayward – she played Eloise with her usual confidence but missed the youthful fervor and light personality for the role and she also suffered from the lack of opportunities the script was willing to grant her. It’s an overall mixed performance, harmed by different factors and circumstances but also saved in parts by Susan Hayward's moments of drunk repulsion and her displays of overwhelming grief and quiet anguish.

No comments: