At times I don’t want to think about it; I don’t want to know; I don’t want to be wrong, and I don’t want to be responsible for the next step if I’m right. With the death penalty in and out of our recent news cycles, t’was perhaps not a coincidence that I Want to Live! (1958) ended up doing time in my mailbox. A potpourri of Oscar winners and should-have-won’s spruce up my Netflix queue, and until now my exposure to Susan Hayward’s winning performance was limited to only a brief mention in The Golden Girls. It was time to knock off this one, but after its arrival, bizarrely it sat on the couch for weeks, quite out of character for me. Sometimes it’s not just a popcorn-in-hand, tushy-on-couch kind of movie.
The film tells the stories of Barbara Graham, her murder trial, and a potential execution by gas. Although I was meeting Barbara for the first time, something kept me on the outside of I Want to Live!, admiring not the first-rate performance but instead the frame around it. A bit more wear and tear on the poor “Rewind” and “Pause” buttons this time around, because throughout the film I found myself thinking, “Ooo I liked that shot,” distracting me from following the uncomplicated storyline. Usually I become so enamored with a character or the actor playing her, that I commit the unforgivable crime of overlooking the artists behind the camera. For it was Addison DeWitt who taught us that, at least in the theatre, their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it. Eloquently put, yes? Addison was kind of a prick.
Yes, let’s tip our hats to the cinematographers then and face the topic head on – I don’t know where I stand on the death penalty. As I age, my emotional reaction to social issues, political situations, and amount of mustard on my sandwich is harder to predict, much less control. If god forbid a trillion times the death penalty personally touched a part of my life, how on earth could I predict what kind of emotional response I would have? Can I take a firm stand on such an issue when it’s happening to someone else? The ability to see both sides and neither side of an issue is a blessed curse, and every time that happens, my brain commences its automated shutdown process . . . ooo, I liked that shot. And in this case, those exceptional shots kept me safely disassociated from an unthinkable issue and an endless “what if” game – what if we execute her and she didn’t do it? What if we let her go, and she did do it and does it again? What if we lock her up forever, and she feels no remorse? What if we lock her up forever, and she’s innocent? Before Wicked, did we indeed have all of the facts in the case of Water versus Wicked Witch of the West? Did she deserve to be liquidated simply for wanting her dead sister’s shoes back? Other than air pollution via skywriting, what were her real crimes? What if Oz police started to target green-skinned women? What if mistakes are made legally, and the mistake itself becomes the process?
Mulling over something as incompressible as the death penalty, I distracted myself with the technical elements of the film (again, not to be disparaged), which proved the safer escape vehicle. When a piece of art forces its audience to scrutinize and come to terms with their own feelings on such dilemmas, we can hardly classify it as a flaw; I knew that one day I would revisit I Want to Live!, perhaps at a time when the news gives me less to escape from and more to hope for . . . now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to my local bookstore and lay myself down on the Personal Growth table.
Academy Award for I Want to Live! (1959): Best Actress in a Leading Role