Red by Robert Laguardia and Gene Arceri

“The geography of ambition and love delayed, though not wholly denied.”

Red, a biography of Susan Hayward written by Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri takes the reader from this phenomenal actress’s poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn to her premature death from cancer at the age of 57. The authors weave together glimpses of Susan from many sources–friends, fellow actors and actresses and her long-estranged sister, Florence. Red paints a portrait of a woman of contrasts. Loathed by some fellow actors who considered her ‘cold’, we also see flashes of a woman who showed instances of remarkable kindness.

Susan Hayward was born as Edythe Marrenner in 1917 in Brooklyn, and grew up in the shadow of her glamorous older sister, Florence. Susan sustained and overcame a horrible, potentially crippling childhood injury. Showing tremendous strength of purpose, and remarkable willpower, Susan overcame considerable obstacles to become a model. She landed in Hollywood to screen test for Gone With The Wind.

Reading about Susan’s acting career illustrates just how bad the studio system was for actors and actresses. They all coveted contracts but then once they had a contract they were stuck, and talent certainly didn’t guarantee roles. Susan, groomed by her loyal agent Benny Medford, a man who stubbornly believed in Susan when no one else did, landed a contract with Warner Bros but was later dropped. She then signed with Paramount but managed to alienate studio heads with her outspoken public comments and complaints about her lack of roles. The studio subsequently withheld film roles as a punishment. Susan eventually managed to gain the recognition she so justly deserved with such films as: I’ll Cry Tomorrow, With a Song in My Heart, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, and I Want to Live, but in spite of these phenomenal successes, under contract to 20th Century Fox, Susan’s fame and talent were used to bolster the studio’s stinkers.

The book charts Susan’s personal life: her two marriages and her climb to success, and a suicide attempt. The final section of the book makes for difficult reading due to the subject matter: Susan’s struggle with alcohol, her illness, and death.

On the negative side, I don’t think enough credit was given to her early deprivation. Susan came from a very poor background, and I don’t think that was really addressed when comments appear about how “cheap” she was when it came to spending money. A great deal of the information about Susan comes from Florence, and the book makes it clear that there wasn’t much love lost between the sisters. Florence at one point notes that things were so bad at Susan’s home when she was married to first husband Jess Barker that their twin sons packed suitcases to leave (before Nov. 1947). For the time frame given the twins would have been 2-3 years old, so the packing of cases seems somewhat unlikely. These sorts of points are unchallenged by the authors. You can ask 100 people their opinions about someone they all know, and you are going to get 100 different answers. The book doesn’t address some of the apparently conflicting information about her. Why for example, did some people love working with Susan while others did not? Why did she apparently have problems with inter-personal relationships?

That said, Red, is an highly readable book that offers an account of Susan’s life–its triumphs and its tragedies. There are a lot of details here for any reader interested in understanding Susan’s career, and I particularly enjoyed reading the information regarding Susan’s favorite photograph of herself. It seems ironic that at first the biggest criticism of Susan’s acting ability was that she was unable to show emotion: “She has no heart.” But Susan worked intensely to overcome that and during the course of her career she delivered some of the most memorable and emotional performances ever in the history of Hollywood. The book details the enormous price she paid while throwing herself into her greatest roles. This is a portrait of a woman who was at times her own worst enemy–a woman who desperately wanted to be liked and loved but who often inadvertently alienated those closest to her. The book includes an index and a filmography of this remarkable star.

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Filed under Books about film, Susan Hayward

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