Susan Hayward received her fourth Best Actress nomination for playing troubled alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in the movie based on Roth's autobiography, I'll Cry Tomorrow. As you may or may not know, Anna Magnani was so convinced that she would lose the Oscar that not only did she refuse to attend the event, but she also refused to believe that she won. I guess Anna must have thought she didn't have a chance in hell of beating Susan Hayward's huge, over-the-top performance. If that battle between the two actresses took part nowadays, Susan would easily win the Oscar, with many people praising her work in this part. However, Anna was the clear front-runner based on the awards but I feel that Susan came really close to her.
I'll Cry Tomorrow is a very interesting movie, very much unlike the other films of that era. It's really dark and doesn't have a moment of real relief for the audience. Even when things seem to turn out to be right, the whole atmosphere becomes quite sinister. First, the fact that the movie was edited so unusually that you don't see the ending of the scene bothered me a little bit but I got used to after a while and I felt it was essential for the movie. Jo Van Fleet (I suppose) won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar also for this performance, too not only her shallow, one-dimensional job in East of Eden.
Although Susan Hayward is an performer who could be made fun of and criticised in a really hilarious way, I feel she's a really terrific actress. Sure, she liked to go (sometimes too much) over the top but I guess that's her trademark and also the best thing about her. Many are comparing her to Melissa Leo, which is just as justified as its inaccurate. Sure they have a very deep and strong voice and both of them like to chew the scenery, however, in Susan's case, I can rarely say that she's hammy (unlike Melissa who never seems to find the perfect balance between over-the-top and overacting). That being said, Susan is a stormy and huge presence on the screen and yet she doesn't destroy the movie. For sure, she took on very baity, typical Oscar roles and it's no wonder that she often played alcoholic and/or suffering women. She could display fear and anger like no one else and I'll Cry Tomorrow is arguably her finest hour.
Everything is given in Lillian that equals Oscar nowadays (and did even back in the 50s). Personally, I don't have a problem with Oscar baiting if the performance is really convincing and it's a great acting achievement besides being pure bait. Lillian is a wonderfully complex character whose layers are very difficult to reveal. She requires an actress who has very strong presence and can show emotions in a bit exaggerated but accurate and believable way. Really I can only think of the 30s Barbara Stanwyck who could have played Lillian besides Susan (and I would have probably loved her even more than Susan). However, under the circumstances, Susan was the obvious choice and this part became her signature role that she herself considered to be her finest work on the screen. And for a reason.
Susan took a wonderfully modern approach to Lillian and also alcoholic women. During the studio era, audiences mostly saw cheerful, male drunks and alcholics and in that case it was the source of amusement and light entertainment (though some like Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach were able to add depth to such characters). And then came The Lost Weekend, where Ray Milland redefined what it meant to be an alcoholic. Along came a young actess called Susan Hayward who rocked in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman and it must have been a real shock to people in Hollywood. The movie was, naturally, a flop though it managed to gain enthusiastics nods and even an Oscar nomination to Susan Hayward (Loretta Young, the eventual winner, actually admitted voting for Susan). I guess it's I'll Cry Tomorrow that gives the essence of Susan Hayward's now legendary "drunk" performances, which are, by all means, revolutionary in the way women are represented in Hollywood films.
In I Want to Live!, we see Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham, who's walking to the gas chamber. In I'll Cry Tomorrow we can observe Lillian Roth walking to an AA meetin for the first time. Two very different situations in life but two similarly breathtaking and chilling scenes acted to perfection by Susan Hayward. However, it takes Lillian Roth a long journey thtough booze, tons of husband and suffering to get to that point. And right there I asked myself like Diana Barrie after losing the Academy Award "Was I hit by a bus?"
I'm mostly impressed by the actual existence of great character development, however, in this case I was mostly mesmerised by the "how". Susan sort of roughly showed the changes in the character while being completely accurate and firm, too. She does it in a very tricky way and I almost didn't even notice it until I saw a broken-down addict instead of a cheerful, talented young woman. She shows the inner battles and traumas of Lillian in a very disturbing (because of how believable she makes it) and she completely disappeared in the pain of the character. It was just painful to see her being inconsolable after the death of her fiancé, David and how this tragic event started to ruin almost her whole life. The first scene where Lilian has booze is just unforgettable: Susan showed her like a child before taking the medicine that will later ease her pain. First, she's a bit hesitant and in a second, she begins her downfall.
Another fantastic aspect of this performance is how gradually we can see Lillian destroying herself. First it's just a bit of partying and enjoying herself and eventually, she lies unconsciously in front of a grocery shop. It's an indescribably painful journey that Susan takes you along with her and it's just as intense as a ride on a rollercoaster. Her eventual healing is as cathartic and uplifting as it gets and her final song at the end of it is simply a thrill. The wonderful (and sort of unexpected) thing is that we actually never see her say the lines "My name is Lillian and I'm an alcoholic." We just feel that Lillian has healed and she's going to do what she's supposed to.
And I haven't even mentioned Susan's wonderful chemistry with Jo Van Fleet and how awesome and wonderfully intense their scenes are. Although that aspect of the film is not emphasised enough, the two actresses were able to make their scenes extremely effective.
All around, this is an unbelievably great performance, which I (sort of unexpectedly) loved from the very first minute. Susan is simply marvelous at showing Lillian's pain and struggle with alcohol and makes her film extremely disturbing and hard to watch. However, she also makes an unforgettable impression that hits you really hard in your guts. In her signature role and personal favorite work, Susan Hayward is fantastic. And she sings, too! :)
What do you think?