There was a time when Hollywood made what they called “women’s pictures.” These were movies intended to be watched by women and about women. It was expected that they would do quite nicely; presumably women would leave their families at home and then go back to their houses and do their housework. Then, the studios decided they didn’t need to make women’s pictures, and they decided they wouldn’t do well. They stopped making them. This, like the coming of the Code, damaged actresses’ careers—Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, yes, but also Susan Hayward.
Susan Hayward was one of the many women who auditioned to be Scarlett O’Hara. Obviously, she didn’t get the role. However, by the time the movie came out, she had established a minor career; in 1939, she was fifth-billed in Beau Geste instead. She was also fourth-billed in $1000 a Touchdown and second-billed Our Leading Citizen. And if you haven’t heard of them, that’s not terribly surprising. A lot of her films were more obscure than Beau Geste.
Probably her most famous was I Want to Live! Hayward played minor criminal Barbara Graham, executed by the State of California in 1955. The film makes a strong case for Graham’s innocence, which is probably wrong. Either way, it’s an impressive performance from Hayward, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for the role. She actually beat Elizabeth Taylor in Some Like It Hot and Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. It’s an impressive performance, regardless of the facts of the case.
And not long after, her career entered a serious decline. She was a hard worker, making multiple films most years, and she didn’t make a single movie between 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and 1972’s The Revengers, her last film. And, fine, probably a lot more of you know her for Valley of the Dolls than I Want to Live! But she was cast in Valley of the Dolls in part because her career was in a bit of a slide already; she made two movies in 1967 but before that, her last film had been in 1964. The pictures were fading for her, because women’s films were not being made much anymore.
Finally, yes, the elephant in the room that is The Conqueror. As it happens, I don’t believe it killed as many people as legend has it. You don’t need radioactive fallout to give John Wayne lung cancer; the smoking will do that just dandy. On the other hand, Susan Hayward died of brain cancer. You do not generally get that from smoking. It’s quite possible that Hayward is a victim of fallout. Impossible to know for sure, but it does seem likely, doesn’t it?