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Susan Hayward Profile
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Remind Me

Susan Hayward Profile

"I learned at a very early age that life is a battle. My family was poor, my neighborhood was poor. The only way that I could get away from the awfulness of life, at that time, was at the movies. There I decided that my big aim was to make money. And it was there that I became a very determined woman."
-- Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward was a scrapper, fighting her way to the top over the course of a decade in Hollywood, fighting to stay there through the turbulent '50s and fighting to survive as brain cancer slowly took her life. Little wonder she made her biggest splash on screen playing women fighting to overcome almost insurmountable disadvantages.

She was born Edythe Marrenner to a struggling Brooklyn family, getting her trademark red hair from her Irish father and her porcelain skin from her Swedish mother. The realization that her mother clearly favored Hayward's older sister Florence started a lifetime determination to prove that she was second to none.

After attending secretarial school, Edythe decided to capitalize on her good looks by going into modeling. When a Saturday Evening Post cover caught the eye of David O. Selznick in 1937, he brought her out to Hollywood to test for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Edythe's inexperience was the only thing to register on screen, and Selznick counseled her to go home and forget about Hollywood. Instead she quipped, "I like oranges. I think I'll stay." Then a biking accident that landed her on the lawn of agent Benny Medford convinced him to sign her.

Hayward's first contract was with Warner Bros., where she languished in bit parts, starting with her screen debut in Hollywood Hotel (1937). She was tenth billed as the girl who accuses star Jane Bryan of theft in Girls on Probation (1938), but then sunk to no billing at all as an amateur actress in the backstage drama Comet Over Broadway (1938).

A year later, however, just as Vivien Leigh was putting the finishing touches on her performance as Scarlett, Hayward moved to Paramount and landed her first important role, as the young innocent who loses her fiancé to the Foreign Legion in Beau Geste (1939). That brought her more noticeable roles, particularly as the scheming vixen competing with Ingrid Bergman in Adam Had Four Sons (1941) and a greedy mill worker involved with a psychotic killer in Among the Living (1941). But that wasn't fast enough for Hayward, who openly complained to interviewers about the studio's failure to build her career fast enough. At an exhibitor's luncheon, she embarrassed studio head Y. Frank Freeman when she grabbed the mike and said, "Several of you have asked why I'm not in more Paramount Pictures. Well, Mr. Freeman, do I get a break or don't I?".

The pictures got better, including a supporting role in Cecil B. DeMille's epic Reap the Wild Wind (1942), starring Paulette Goddard and John Wayne; another in the comedy I Married a Witch (1942), with Veronica Lake in the title role; and a World War II drama, The Fighting Seabees (1944), paired once again with John Wayne, that made her a popular pinup. When that still wasn't enough for her, she changed agents and finally got out of her studio contract.

Hayward started her free-lance career with a memorable performance as a nightclub dancer who turns detective to help a sailor accused of murder in Deadline at Dawn (1946). Then she hooked up with independent producer Walter Wanger, who immediately gave her the kind of meaty dramatic role she had dreamed of, a married singer who turns to alcohol when her husband's career eclipses hers in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947). The film brought her first Oscar® nomination, although she lost to Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter. Another role as an alcoholic, this time in producer Sam Goldwyn's My Foolish Heart (1949), brought Hayward a second nomination.

She then signed with 20th Century-Fox, quickly becoming the studio's top leading lady. Through an astute combination of high-voltage dramas like the biography of singer Jane Froman, With a Song in My Heart (1952), which brought her a third Oscar® nod, and action films, Hayward quickly became the screen's most popular female star. A loan-out to MGM brought Hayward her fourth nomination for what many consider her best performance, as alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955). She even got to do her own on-screen singing.

In 1957, Hayward, who had suffered through a very public break-up with first husband Jess Barker, found happiness with Georgia businessman Floyd Eaton Chalkley. She also re-teamed with Wanger for I Want to Live! (1958). Her performance as petty criminal Barbara Graham, sent to the electric chair for a murder she may not have committed, brought Hayward the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress and, finally, the Oscar®. After she won, Wanger told a friend, "Thank heavens, now we can all relax. Susie got what she's been chasing for 20 years."

Shortly after winning the Oscar®, Hayward announced to the press that the only role she cared about now was wife. True to her word, she left her home in Hollywood to live with Chalkley in Georgia and began cutting back on film appearances. She made a few British films, including a remake of Bette Davis' Dark Victory (1939) called Stolen Hours (1963) and the medical drama I Thank a Fool (1962).

Only after Chalkley's 1966 death did Hayward attempt to re-build her career, and even then, she maintained her base in the South. She made headlines when she replaced Judy Garland as a temperamental Broadway star in Valley of the Dolls (1967) and agreed to star in the Las Vegas production of the musical Mame, but neither project did as much for her career as she might have hoped. Then she got bad news from her doctors. Her two-pack-a-day cigarette habit had given her lung cancer. Despite surgery, the cancer spread to her brain. After playing a female rancher in The Revengers and a doctor in the television movie Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole (both 1972), she announced her retirement from acting. Hayward made only one more public appearance, winning a thunderous ovation when she and Charlton Heston presented the Best Actress award at the 1974 Oscars®. She looked fabulous, but few realized that the trademarked red hair was now a wig, and her glittering Nolan Miller gown hid the ravages of disease. Within the year she had passed away. At her request, she was buried in the gown Miller had designed for her.

One of the most curious legends in Hollywood history blames the U.S. government for Hayward's death from cancer. In 1956, she had gone on location to shoot one of her worst films, The Conqueror (1956), in Utah. Not only was this near a U.S. nuclear testing facility, but producer Howard Hawks had dirt from the location shipped back to Hollywood for the studio scenes. Years later, fans pointed to a surprisingly high incidence of cancer among cast and crew -- including co-stars Wayne, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz, and director Dick Powell -- as evidence that they had been victims of nuclear fallout.

by Frank Miller