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Susan Hayward in "I'll Cry Tomorrow"


"this story was filmed on location... inside a woman's soul!"
-I'll Cry Tomorrow's tagline.

by Eric Blume

I’ll Cry Tomorrow, a biopic of singer Lillian Roth, won Susan Hayward the fourth of her five Oscar nominations, in 1955.  The film starts with a young Lillian and her stage mother, played by Jo Van Fleet. Ten minutes in, though, Hayward gets a true star entrance belting out “Sing You Sinners” in a lengthy number with only four cuts.

It’s a fun introduction, partially because you try to place yourself in 1955, when part of the excitement (one guesses) was hearing Hayward sing for the first time, and it’s quite a boisterous number. Then Hayward was known mostly as a tragedienne (Hollywood star variety), it must have been a blast for audiences to see Hayward let loose (Hollywood star style) in a big production number where she gets to snarl and dance (Hollywood star style, as the musicality doesn’t come easily to her)... 

 “Sinners” is one of four songs that Hayward sings in the movie, and while her voice lacks variety and subtlety, she brings it.  In fact, her singing style is somewhat reflective of her acting style in the first half of the movie:  it’s a glorious one-emotion-at-a-time performance.  

Lillian Roth hasn’t survived the way other singers of that era (e.g., Billie Holliday) have, so we can accept Hayward without any comparison to the real-life subject.  I’ll Cry Tomorrow follows the standard biopic trajectory, so there are no surprises, except the big one:  watching this movie for the first time, over 60 years after its release, Roth’s actual story is pretty remarkable.  A child Broadway performer, she goes on to become a wealthy recording star, only to degenerate into a Skid Row alcoholic in abusive relationships who literally stumbles penniless into Alcoholics Anonymous.  Evidently Roth was one of the first famous people ever to talk about her alcoholism (on an episode of "This Is Your Life" in 1953).  

The first half of the picture, Hayward hits all of her marks and plays all of her scenes smartly beat-by-beat.  But there’s no complexity, and actually her Lillian seems to not exist outside of her relationship to men:  she comes across spineless and weak, and not very interesting, and it doesn’t feel that’s a larger decision by Hayward and the creative team.  We’re in 1950s movieland, where it was important that actors and characters were likable.

But the film takes on a cumulative power, as does Hayward.  The film gets darker than you might think for its time period, including a borderline scary second marriage where Roth sneaks out in the middle of the night to flee another battering and begins wandering the streets and having seizures.  

In the last half hour of the movie, Hayward drives the film past melodrama.  She pushes pretty far and shows you how Roth became a terrified, lonely cat of a person, so far removed from actual reality that she fell into perpetual stupor.  For 50s cinema, Roth’s final descent before redemption remains fairly harrowing, and Hayward doesn’t shy away from the demands.  She makes you understand Roth’s desire to be completely alone due to her colossal shame, as she disassociates from herself and from the world.  Hayward finds a near-catatonia that’s chilling and effective.  

When Roth walks into Alcoholics Anonymous to change her life, Hayward lets you feel the monumental power of the decision.  In this scene, she remains so closed off from human contact, let alone the possibility of change, that she’s literally backing away from people who are simply greeting her.  Hayward doesn’t “play brave” but in the final stretch of the movie, she simply IS.  It’s a knockout last inning that proves why Hayward was one of our best.

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Reader Comments (8)

Thx Eric for this wonderful n nauced review!

I alws feel tt Hayward shld've won her Oscar for this pic rather than the Oscar baity I Wanna Live! I bet she's the runner-up to Magnani ij the best actress race.

And Van Fleet too shld've won the Oscar for her ultimate Stage Mom here, rather than the distant mom figure in East of Eden.

June 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

1955 was the year of Jo Van Fleet, wasn't it? East of Eden, I'll Cry Tomorrow, and The Rose Tattoo: that's a holy trinity—and her first three films to boot! (Always had a soft spot for her as the evil stepmother in the 1965 TV production of Cinderella.)

Anyway, Susan Hayward really did run the arc of this character. Glad she (finally) won an Oscar, and pity she died so young. (I could see her killing it on some '80s primetime soap had she survived cancer.)

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

"a glorious one-emotion-at-a-time performance" - oh the shade

i saw a bunch of susan hayward pics on saturday afternoon televison back when i was a kid and they've all blurred into one for me - so this isn't the singer in the plane crash but the singer with the drinking problem? or the other singer with the drinking problem? or the non-singer who drinks too much? or the broad who hangs out in seedy bars and gets framed for murder?

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Susan Hayward is from a time when even the great/dramatic actresses were gorgeous and sexy in a pin up level. She, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Eleanor Parker as some of them. Without the register of the movies nobody would believe this time existed.

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGiovanni

I can deal with the fact that they were exaggeratedly beautiful - mainly in the 1950's and 1960's- but what about their wasp waist? They act like if it was something absolutely natural and today we have to content ourselves with Schwarzenegger's abs.

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Oh Susan every single one of her noms is like a personalized Oscar bait

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

That's a good point about her Lillian being extremely compliant at the start of the film which I think is rooted in her dominant mother. You see it after she finishes her first big number and rather than rely on her own judgement she immediately defers to her mother who is in no way interested in relaxing her grip. Then when she tries to take her first steps away tragedy happens and she can't cope.

It's a very well judged performance and unnerving when Lillian sinks to the depths. It's not my favorite Susan Hayward performance, that's between The Lusty Men, The President's Lady and Deadline at Dawn, but it is the one I favor of her nominated work and I think she should have won for this rather than I Want to Live!

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I find I'll Cry Tomorrow interesting because it represents Susan Hayward's dynamism and forceful acting but it also shows why her legacy hasn't endured as much as some of the other classic actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, etc. Her strong, charismatic personality drives the audience to her but at the same time she can also come off as overly brittle and I sometimes had a hard time being invested in her. Also, most of the movies in her career heyday aren't as memorable as she is, as in the case of I'll Cry Tomorrow, which has a clunky screenplay.

My favorite Hayward performance was in Rawhide because she gets to demonstrate her hard-bitten edge (her forceful edge is well contrasted with Tyrone Power's understated passivity) but tempers it with more humanity than usual as she shows how much she cares for her infant daughter and she demonstrates courage.

July 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Tawfik

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