Today we celebrate the brassiest of broads, Susan Hayward (1917-1975). Stunningly gorgeous for the first decade of her career (which had begun in 1937 when the former fashion model came out to Hollywood to audition for the part of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind), her looks and personality grew hard-bitten in time.
Her Oscar nominated performance in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), a portrait of an alcoholic nightclub singer loosely based on Dixie Lee, began the redefinition, from pin-up girl to singin’, dancin’ car-wreck:
A few years later she revisited the same territory, this time in a vehicle based on the real life Lillian Roth’s autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). Another hard-bitten bio-pic was I Want to Live (1957), the story of death row murderer Barbara Graham (about whom my wife wrote a terrific play called Die Like a Lady).
But the ever-lovin’ capper, and one of the best scenes in a movie full of priceless moments, is her notorious turn as Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls (1967) in which she loses her wig in a cat-fight with the younger, hungrier Patty Duke. “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!” she hisses just before Duke’s sociopathic movie star Neely O’Hara yanks her rusty curls off her head and dumps them in the toilet.
These are the first movies I ever saw Hayward in, so imagine my surprise when I finally saw her in earlier roles like The Hairy Ape (1942). She was one the screens great beauties. Dayum! Stay away from bourbon, children!
For more about show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.