Posted by Susan Doll on January 19, 2009
In the hype and hoopla surrounding the Golden Globes, much was made of Meryl Streep’s record of award nominations and wins. Nominated for Mamma Mia this year, Streep habitually earns award nods for almost every role she takes on. The nominations alone are enough to designate her as our era’s most respected actress, and fans like to speculate on her best role. But, during the 1950s, Susan Hayward would have given Streep a run for her money. And, in my opinion, her best film is I Want to Live.
Hayward specialized in melodramas and biopics, which gave her ample opportunity to exhibit her talent for playing spirited characters kicked down by life’s circumstances. The roles were showy, and her characters were expressive and emotional, making her a favorite of female movie fans. Between 1948 and 1959, Hayward received five Best Actress Academy Award nominations, winning once. In addition, she won a Best Actress award at Cannes, two Golden Globes, and was twice nominated for a British Academy Award.
Hayward is best remembered for roles based on real-life women forced to face life’s hardships or cruelties, including With a Song in My Heart, a biopic of singer Jane Froman, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, a biopic of actress Lillian Roth, and I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, a drama about a real-life minister’s wife. Sadly, melodramas, with their artifice, exaggerated emotions, large-scale orchestrated scores, and female-oriented storylines, are out of favor in our contemporary era. This has nothing to do with Hayward’s excellent performances, but several of these films seem old-fashioned in their mise-en-scene, storylines, and direction. The exception is her Oscar-winning role in I Want to Live, in which she played convicted murderess Barbara Graham, who was executed in the gas chamber in 1955 for her part in killing an old lady for money. TCM is showing I Want to Live in the afternoon of January 27; if you have never seen this film, I can’t recommend it enough. It is surprisingly modern in its style and its unsentimental approach to the story.
Hayward gives an astonishing performance as an unsympathetic woman. Graham was a party girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had been in trouble with the law since adolescence. With no education, sense of purpose, or decent family life, she could not escape the sordid world she had been born into. Graham married four times and had a couple of kids; she drifted in and out of prostitution; and she dabbled in drugs. She had complete disdain for mainstream social institutions, such as the law, the judicial system, social mores and propriety, and the media. But who can blame her; these institutions mostly worked against her rather than for her.
Written by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz and directed by the versatile Robert Wise, I Want to Live offers an unflinching, unsentimental chronicle of Graham’s lifestyle and milieu. While the viewer understands the connection between crime, poverty, and lack of opportunity while watching the film, the movie does not excuse her bad choices or immoral behavior. During the course of events, she is arrested for solicitation, she offers known criminals alibis to keep them out of trouble, and she shills for a gambling joint by luring in unsuspecting dupes to get fleeced. Her choices are not accidents, and she knows the consequences of what she is doing. When the police come to arrest her for murder at the warehouse hideout where she is found with the other suspects, they use a bullhorn to force her out with her hands up. She walks out onto the street where the police and a barrage of reporters are waiting for her, and she defiantly thrusts her hips at them in a lewd gesture. Barbara Graham is definitely NOT the hooker with a heart of gold.
Though the depiction of Graham is not sugar-coated, we become increasingly sympathetic toward her. The film takes an ambiguous position on her guilt, beginning with her arrest and continuing through the trial .Graham claims she did not take part in the murder, but she has no credible alibi. While in jail, she is set up by authorities when they plant an undercover cop inside, who offers her an alibi in exchange for money. Graham accepts the offer only to find out that she was duped, making her look even more guilty. The film clearly depicts this set back as a set-up. The lack of compassion for Graham and women like her by various representatives of social institutions — cops, reporters, lawyers — is shown many times in the film, suggesting that the system works against disenfranchised women who are alienated from a “normal family life.” When a newspaper reporter, who had previously assumed she was guilty because of her sleazy lifestyle, changes his mind about her, we take her side as well. But his efforts on her behalf do not help her case, and she is convicted of murder.
We have sympathy for Graham for other reasons as well, based on standard filmmaking conventions. We identify with her partly because she is the central character and events unfold from her point of view, and partly because she is played by a charismatic and beautiful film star, Susan Hayward. Those two characteristics always force some sense of identification from the film viewer, even for the most hideous of central characters.
However, Robert Wise’s skillful direction also puts us on Barbara’s side in more subtle ways. He uses a great deal of close-ups in the film, which depict Hayward’s expressive face or the faces of other characters. Close-ups reveal a character’s inner feelings or true self, even if he or she is putting up a front for the rest of the world. In addition, the closer we are to a character physically, the more emotionally involved we are with them. Close-ups of Hayward engender sympathy for the character of Graham.
Wise makes excellent use of a close-up at the end of the film to suggest the real reason behind her conviction. After all of Barbara’s stays of executions are over, reporter Ed Montgomery — based on the real-life reporter who wrote articles on Graham’s behalf — sits dejected in a room waiting for the inevitable. A prison guard says, “Well, what was she doing shacked up with them in the first place.” A close-up on Montgomery’s face reveals that he realizes that Graham is being convicted and punished for her sordid lifestyle, not the crime. And, given his original opinion of her, Montgomery recognizes his initial attitude in the guard’s cold-blooded statement. The fact that this statement is made as Graham is being gassed underscores that her execution is morally wrong. And, it’s a simple close-up that brings all of this home.
Wise’s background as a director at RKO, where he edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Andersons and directed some of the Val Lewton films, served him well for understanding the signifying power of a camera angle and the expressive nature of lighting in a black-and-white film. I Want to Live opens in a seedy jazz club with good music but a bad crowd. Depicted in a selection of dutch angles (canted angles), which typically suggest that something is wrong with a character, locale, or situation, the jazz club is not a place where good women and honorable men pass the time. It is an aberrant milieu that is far removed from a normal middle-class life. And, it is Barbara Graham’s milieu.
Later, when in jail, Barbara writes to a prominent psychiatrist who may help her avoid the gas chamber. She writes that he is her greatest hope. At that point the lights go out for the night, leaving her in the dark. The lighting is so low key that you can hardly see her, suggesting that the lights have gone out in more ways than one. In the next scene, we learn that the psychiatrist has died, and so has her hopes. These scenes showcase film as a visual medium; plot points, character development, and themes are often reinforced through visual techniques. The classic Hollywood style can be an amazing storytelling tool in the hands of a good filmmaker like Robert Wise; there is simply no equal to it.
A title card at the beginning of the film explains that I Want to Live is based on the letters of Barbara Graham and the experiences of reporter Ed Montgomery. The United Artists marketing department exploited the “true story” angle in the promotion and publicity for the film, which was made only three years after the execution of the real Bloody Babs Graham. Because it was one of those “trials of the century,” as the press likes to dub any high-profile murder case, it would have been fresh in the minds of many audience members. But that doesn’t mean that the film was an accurate portrayal of Graham’s life or crimes. Hollywood fictional narratives never are, which inevitably leads to nitpickers and naysayers who point out scenes and characters that are not accurate. The “true story” angle is generally at odds with the filmmakers’ agenda, which is to aim for a universal truth or a criticism of society rather than accuracy for its own sake.
It is better to think of I Want to Live as an example of a social problem film rather than an accurate depiction of Graham and her case. Social problem films were a popular genre during the 1950s, and several of them garnered awards and acclaim as they pointed out the issues and problems of American society. Both I Want to Live and Montgomery’s book are condemnations of the death penalty and a sympathetic portrait of lower-class women whose lack of opportunity can doom them to a marginal existence. Director Robert Wise chose to watch an execution as research for the film, which seems to me to be beyond the call of duty for a filmmaker, and the depiction of capital punishment as cruel and unusual, and therefore immoral, occurs at the end when Graham is prepared for execution. After several attempts to get her sentence commuted have failed, she is resigned to her fate and maintains a brave front during her transfer to San Quentin. The pacing of the final sequence is deliberate and tense as Wise depicts every detail of the preparation for execution in a documentary -like manner, making it chillingly real.
When the day finally arrives, Barbara chats with a friendly nurse as preparations continue, but 45 minutes before the execution, the governor declares a stay , which at first seems like a relief. But, the last-minute writ that prompted the stay is denied, and the execution is ordered to go on. In my favorite scene, which Hayward captures beautifully, Graham dons a sexy dress, dangling earrings, and high heels to meet her fate — a final act of female defiance at the male-dominated establishment. She makes it all the way inside the chamber, when the phone rings and another stay is declared in order to consider an amended writ. The effect is nerve-wracking not only on Graham but on the audience. Barbara loses her bravado at this point as she is helped back to her cell. The writ is denied again, and the execution is back on. In the endless series of stays and postponements, the system of capital punishment toys with the life and death of an inmate, which seems cruel and immoral– like a cat who toys with a bird before killing it.
The issue of capital punishment still provokes debate. A few years ago, Governor George Ryan of Illinois released prisoners from death row because so many of them had been wrongly convicted and railroaded by the press and the system. The fact that most people on death row are poor, lower class, and disenfranchised was brought out in the very media that too often influences important trials. The decision was a controversial move from a governor who was later convicted of corruption himself, but it showed that our judicial system can be corrupt, unfair, and inequitable. Though 50 years old, I Want to Live seems very contemporary in both style and relevancy, which speaks well of the film — but badly of our inability to dispense justice with fairness and objectivity.
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