Lillian Roth, a vaudeville headliner and modest success in early talkie musicals, disappeared into a fog of alcoholism only to reemerge in the ‘50s with a bestselling memoir of her battle with booze. It was the first big “True Confession” type tell-all book from a fallen star, providing an excuse for the never-successful to gloat over the ruin of a former favorite, and for masochists to pore over every “just how bad did it get?” detail. When it was made into a movie by MGM, some of the harder edges of the book were jettisoned, of course, but it still provided a harrowing/hilarious showcase for that Queen of the Masochists, Susan Hayward, a blunt Brooklyn redhead who was always chasing after awards by acting out sordid ordeals of one kind or another. Just as Roth set the standard for tell-alls, Hayward practically invented the shameless Oscar-bait performance, which, for her, usually involved heavy drinking, getting beat up, enduring Death Row, and generally going to the dogs, all of which she invested with a twisted sort of glamour.
In the ‘40s, Hayward had a distinctive and rather bitchy sex appeal and clear hunger for stardom that gave way in the ‘50s to a weary but still authoritative command of frank self-pity and tough-broad defiance. Her performance here has its ludicrous side, but that’s part of the fun: any self-respecting drag queen should have her tone-deaf rendition of an up-tempo ditty like “Sing You Sinners” in their repertoire, complete with weirdly stiff arm gestures made to show off the carefully arranged Hayward décolletage. Such semaphore-style arm movements run in the family; as Lillian’s smothering, abusive stage mama, Jo Van Fleet is forever raising her hands to her sternum in passive-aggressive anguish, while Hayward saws at the space between them, and they both boom at each other in their Noo Yawk accents. These two ain’t subtle, and the first hour of the movie is rough going, as Roth loses a dull fiancée (Ray Danton) and marries a very dull cadet (Don Taylor). During these preliminary exercises in heartbreak, there are too many moments where Hayward uncomfortably navigates the difference between a comic drunk scene and more melodramatic inebriation.
In the early scenes, Hayward plays Roth as a weak-willed, colorless victim of her mother, men, and strong drink, and director Daniel Mann loses our attention with choppy editing, a fractured time scheme, and weird dissolves. In the second hour, however, when Hayward starts to get the shakes and she meets up with a scary sadist (Richard Conte), the movie comes into its own as a compellingly tawdry spectacle of abuse. Mann’s ellipses start to serve a purpose, hinting at beatings and assorted tortures inflicted on Hayward by Conte’s mean husband, who takes advantage of his wife’s money and seems to savage her just because he gets a kick out of it. For about a half hour, Hayward is on firm ground as she travels down to the depths of Skid Row, chillingly reverting to a childhood audition spiel in a seedy bar, and then sinking to prostitution and worse. She seems to glory in making herself into a twitchy, ugly mess, wandering around what look like real on-the-Bowery locations, doing final battle with Mama Van Fleet (just try to look away!), and then considering suicide by a cheap hotel window. The film reverts to camp when it becomes a commercial for Alcoholic’s Anonymous, and the gutsy Hayward herself is a camp item these days. But her intense physical commitment to the reenactment of this woman’s random ordeal is still something to see.