“Lost, indeed! Don’t talk to me about finding yourself. Only as you are lost is there any hope for you.” -Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (x)
Sterling Hayden was always the tough guy. Hired time and again to portray gangsters and the seedy underworld they inhabited, he often, through voice and gesture, was able to imbue this world and these characters with nuance and depth. He was able to create portraits of men, haunted and desperate for the past. With grace, he portrayed men whom society had deemed dangerous, giving them space and a voice, and challenging the narratives that society and Hollywood had been disseminating for decades. It was the sensitivity of his every movement that made these characters unforgettable. It is probably 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle for which Hayden is best known. In it he plays Dix Handley, a petty criminal whose whole adult life has been a prolonged attempt to get back to some sense of peace, to a bucolic past of fields and horses, to recapture a beauty and an innocence that has been lost. Beneath all the posturing, his past lends his life meaning. Hayden plays this masterfully, his performance a seeming indictment of society and the censors that would damn all filmic criminals to execution for their misdeeds, no matter how insignificant. He lends Dix a startling humanity that skewers the way in which Hollywood dealt with crime and its villains. It is a master class in turning the status quo on its head, interrogating the stories we tell about ourselves and others. And it makes sense that he was able to do that. He had always been an outsider in Hollywood.
Sterling Hayden always said that he went into acting just to buy a boat. While indifferent to acting, sailing was his true passion. It is this disinterest that made Hayden a good star. Reluctance, while bad for the psyche, is good for the star. It shows in their work. They are enigmatic, they project an indestructible aloofness to their audience. He was clearly a man not made for Hollywood, but for adventure. A romantic, in the true sense of the word, in his later years he was surrounded by books of poetry and was known to quote from them extensively. Having traveled throughout the world seeking adventure, he cultivated an almost Hemingwayesque persona for mischief: at fifteen, he was aboard a fishing boat and by World War II, he was parachuting into war zones. Sailing seems to have been an extension of this, the wildness and ambiguity paired with the euphoria of danger, autonomy, and control. On a boat, Hayden was in charge of his destiny, not so in Hollywood. It was a place of facade, a place where, especially during the 1940s and 1950s, the actor was indebted and subservient to the studio. He went from extreme freedom to the rigid and uncompromising control of the Hollywood studio system. This went, quickly, from merely uncomfortable, to dangerous.
During the 1950s, with anti-communist sentiment high, the House Un-American Activities Commitee, or HUAC, became one of the most powerful and feared organizations in Hollywood. Actors, screenwriters, directors, and many others were called before the Committee for alleged communist ties and were forced to either name other known Communists or face an unofficial but powerful blacklist. Hayden, who joined the Communist Party in his youth, was soon called to testify. What he did next was the thing that plagued him for the rest of his life. He named names. Although the names he mentioned were already known to the committee, he was filled with a regret, the depths of which he could never pull himself out of. He spoke frequently on this point in his later life, not in an attempt to absolve himself, but rather to speak frankly about the cost to himself and others of this action. He seemed to forever damn himself. He was hired for many films after his appearance before HUAC and, seeing these films as payment for his testimony, decided to leave Hollywood.
“Pharos of Chaos”, a 1983 documentary, gives us a glimpse of Hayden’s later life, after his self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Living on a barge outside of a small Parisian town and plagued by alcoholism, Hayden is shown at his most frank. The film is composed of moments that together form one of the most unflinching surveys of a man’s life. To a young man asleep on a boat, Hayden recalls having said, “Strange that you can’t see. What a terrible affliction.” While a story of a different time, I believe this statement means much more because Hayden is a man who sees everything. He is a man tormented by his faults, whose clarity of vision has caused him to demand so much of himself. He is a man whose perception has made him solitary, who has failed to find comfort in the ideals of a modern homogenized society. He is a man of awareness and it is this that has made his life so poignant and so hard. Building your life the way you want it, surrounded by the things that you draw beauty and inspiration from, does not necessarily mean that you are able to escape the ways that you have let yourself down. This is what we see when we see an older Hayden, a contemplative and pained man, constantly at odds with himself. Here’s the thing though, to have the vulnerability to accept that you did wrong is to show what true strength is. And here, again, we see the outsider and the mentality that characterized Hayden. The honesty. He wanted to show people what the world had been and what it had momentarily turned him into.
There are many ways that the HUAC hearings killed people. Some were more obvious, like suicide or stressed induced heart attacks, and others were more subtle. Hayden’s is an example of the latter. The gnawing and overwhelming guilt, the sense of personal devastation at the loss of one’s morals, and the deeply held conviction that there is no returning from that loss. The refusal to learn how to live with yourself after you have let yourself down. It is a devastating thing to think about. The drinking to mask the despair, the loneliness, the knowledge that you are not the person you hoped you would be. But doesn’t the honesty about what he perceived as his failings actually show fortitude and awareness? Isn’t that what makes a person powerful? I think he would heartily disagree, but how are we supposed to change ourselves and the world if we can’t even accept our own failures. Maybe he never found peace with himself, in fact, I’m sure he didn’t, but at least he was honest, to himself and to his audience, and in that he showed strength. It was not the strength of the tough guy from the movie, but real human strength, the kind made up of fragility. It is the kind of strength that we should actually mean when we talk about strength and it made Sterling Hayden who he was.
Blank, Manfred and Wolf-Eckart Bühler, dir. Pharos of Chaos. 1983: The Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD.
Hayden, Sterling. Wanderer. Connecticut: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.