Monday, August 10, 2015

1958: Susan Hayward for I Want to Live!

As the exclamation point in its title suggests, this film is intense! Hayward plays Barbara Graham, a woman who has lived a life of crime: fraud, getaway car driving, prostitution, perjury, etc. But she would never do anything really serious like commit murder. Unfortunately, no one believes that when some of her so-called "friends" implicate her in the brutal slaying of a harmless old woman, and Barbara is sentenced to death.

This movie is based on a true story, except apparently in the real story there was actual evidence to suggest that Barbara did commit the murder she was convicted of. In the Hollywood version, she is portrayed as categorically innocent, at least of that crime, and it seems horrible to execute her, since her conviction was based on only her lack of a solid alibi, the eyewitness testimony of someone who admitted to being involved in the crime, and a coerced confession. I'm pretty sure the film left out a few pieces of evidence in order to be more convincing in its anti-death penalty message. Regardless of how accurate it was, the film is very powerful, and at its heart is Hayward's realistic, consistent portrayal of a woman who has had a very hard life.

Barbara's circumstances change drastically throughout the movie, but she is always, unquestionably the same person. She definitely starts to go crazy towards the end, as her execution looms nearer but then keeps getting postponed, but it's in a way that is completely consistent with the way she acts at the beginning of the film. Her life is pretty awful even before she's accused of murder, and she survives by laughing things off and making sassy comebacks, which she uses even when she's on death row. But there's always a tiny bit of vulnerability lurking below the surface, and though Barbara is careful to hide it, Hayward lets the audience see it occasionally throughout. Though most of us would probably be quick to condemn her with the rest of society in the film, given the many questionable decisions she's made in life, Hayward makes her relatable even to people who would never do any of the things she does. Yes, she made a lot of mistakes, but no, she did not deserve to die. The script makes that very clear, but if they'd messed up on the casting of the main character, watching the movie would have felt like slogging through a heap of propaganda. As it turned out, however, it feels like watching a friend suffer, which is a highly unpleasant experience, but a much more effective one. It certainly helps that she was written well, but Hayward's delivery of the lines and her facial expressions greatly enhance the script. I thought she did a particularly good job of freaking out - which she has to do a lot, being convicted of a murder she didn't commit and all - without going over-the-top about it, which seems to be difficult for a lot of actresses.

This was Susan Hayward's fifth and final Best Actress nomination. Previously she was nominated for 1947's Smash Up: The Story of a Woman, 1949's My Foolish Heart, 1952's With a Song in My Heart, and 1955's I'll Cry Tomorrow. I haven't seen any of those performances, but it's hard to imagine one topping this. It's definitely not a movie I'd want to watch over and over again, but her performance made me enjoy it a lot more than I thought I would. I felt so bad for her and so invested in her fate that I did a lot of yelling at the screen, which only the best performances make me do, particularly on the first viewing. Usually I save my yelling until I know what's going to happen.

Next up: Simone Signoret

No comments:

Post a Comment