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Susan Hayward lived 40 years without getting the love she needed. Her mother rejected her, openly favoring her older sister Florence at every opportunity. Her first, unhappy marriage to actor Jess Barker ended in a messy divorce and her suicide attempt. What little adulation she got from the world she earned through her work, a career that began in 1939 as a scrappy starlet auditioning for Gone with the Wind and reached its apex with an Oscar® win for I Want to Live! (1958).
Things were improving for Hayward on the home front, too. She'd married Floyd Eaton Chalkley, a "shrewd businessman," as she described him, "a horse-trader, as they might say in the South." He was magnanimous where Hayward was emotionally cautious, and gestures like sending four dozen roses to the set for their anniversary did much to melt her heart. Still, no matter how serene her romantic life, Hayward still had to deal with spiteful stunts from her sister, like the article in the May 1961 issue of Confidential with this tattletale headline: "My sister Susan Hayward has millions - BUT I'M ON RELIEF". Maybe that's why "women's picture" impresario Ross Hunter chose Hayward for the lead in the third retelling of Fannie Hurst's adultery parable Back Street (1961). The milky-skinned redhead from Flatbush, NY knew what it was like to live in the shadow of another, more beloved woman.
Like the movies based on Fannie Hurst's other novel Imitation of Life, Back Street was ripe fodder for remakes - once in 1932 with John Boles and Irene Dunne, and in 1941 with Margaret Sullavan and Charles Boyer. Those editions focused more on the painful reality of being a woman in love with a married man. But Hunter, who'd made his name with extravagant melodramas like Magnificent Obsession (1954) and rom-com confections like Pillow Talk (1959), freely admitted "I don't want to hold a mirror up to life as it is." His rendition of Back Street included scenes in New York, Paris and Rome, luxurious sets designed by his life partner Jacques Mapes, and $112,000 worth of Jean Louis gowns for Hayward. Whatever reservations she had about the script were overcome by these perks, and she willingly lost 15 pounds on a liquid diet before shooting began.
To round out the cast, Hunter selected John Gavin to play opposite Hayward - an unusual choice, since the swarthy Gavin was 30 years old to Hayward's 44, and towered over her by a foot. But Gavin was being groomed by Universal as a secondary version of Rock Hudson (also a Universal contract player). Since Hunter had previously produced seven features with Hudson, a stint under him may have been part of Gavin's tutelage. Hunter also cast Vera Miles, Gavin's co-star in the previous year's Psycho (1960), as the wife in the middle of this ill-fated love triangle. Miles was mousy in an overcoat the last time she and Gavin appeared on screen together, but here she flexes her considerable sex appeal as the evil, alcoholic shrew who won't take her hooks out of Hayward's lover.
Back Street premiered in October 1961 and was an immediate box office hit, even though the critics weren't impressed. The New York Times dismissed it as "a moral and emotional fraud" and Time magazine commented on how Hayward's well-heeled character isn't as tortured by her romantic frustrations as in the movie's previous incarnations: "She still suffers, but on silk."
To audiences, none of that mattered. They responded to something genuine in Hayward's performance, in how her eyes light up in every scene with Gavin and how she surrenders ecstatically to a clinch in the grass or brightens at the sound of her lover's voice on the phone. Hayward may have had a reputation for being frosty and remote in real life (three-time co-star Robert Preston once remarked "Anything I have to say about Susan Hayward you couldn't print"), but in every frame of Back Street she exudes a vulnerable, palpable joy. Biographers Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri hypothesized in their book Red: The Tempestuous Life of Susan Hayward that the "glow of love in Susan's face" in this movie is because of the emotional peace she'd found with Chalkley. "She did very little real acting in the movie . . . what she did was play the part of herself that was in love."
Producer: Ross Hunter
Director: David Miller
Screenplay: Eleanore Griffin, William Ludwig (screenplay); Fannie Hurst (novel)
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen
Music: Frank Skinner
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Cast: Susan Hayward (Rae Smith), John Gavin (Paul Saxon), Vera Miles (Liz Saxon), Charles Drake (Curt Stanton), Virginia Grey (Janey nee Smith), Reginald Gardiner (Dalian), Tammy Marihugh (Caroline), Robert Eyer (Paul Saxon Jr.), Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Evans), Doreen McLean (Miss Hatfield).
by Violet LeVoit
Obituary of Ross Hunter
Holston, Kim R.Susan Hayward: Her Films And Life.
LaGuardia, Robert and Gene ArceriRed: The Tempestuous Life Of Susan Hayward.
Linet, Beverly.Susan Hayward: Portrait Of A Survivor