Martyrdom or Bust Case File #180: Your Cheatin’ Heart

Martyrdom or Bust Case File #180: Your Cheatin’ Heart

I approach the imminent end of Nashville Or Bust with both pride and regret. If I have turned even a few souls onto the likes of Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall, Gary Stewart, Loretta Lynn, or Kinky Friedman then I will be doing God’s work. But there are a few entries where I missed the mark and failed to do justice to the depth, complexity and richness of an icon’s mythology, music, and life. I will always regret, for example, not doing a better job with my Hank Williams entry. What Elvis was to rock, Williams was to country. He was more than a songwriter, more than a singer, entertainer, or icon. In his life and especially in his death, Williams transcended mere superstardom to become a secular saint, a towering martyr against which all country outlaws past and present measure themselves. 

Williams transcended country, and his own hardscrabble Southern origins to become an American legend. He didn’t just play country; he personified it. Of course country being country, Hank Williams became the genre’s pre-eminent saint by being one of its pre-eminent sinners. In death, Williams became a blank vessel upon which worshipful fans could project their own desires, fears, anxieties, and prejudices. Depending on the person, Williams could be the original and most fearsome outlaw or a God-fearing country boy forever stumbling toward grace but tempted by demons. Just as every fan seems to have his or her own Michael Jackson, 2Pac, James Dean, or Elvis, everyone seems to have a personal Hank Williams. 

With the possible exception of his namesake and son, no one had a bigger claim on Williams’ legacy than Audrey Williams, his ex-wife, muse, lover, manager, collaborator, and tormentor. Even by country-music standards, the two had a famously tumultuous relationship. It was the kind of marriage that’s just barely survived. Audrey pushed herself onstage with Hank despite her complete lack of musical talent. The duets they recorded together are rare blights in Williams’ discography; her shrill, off-key caterwauling drowned out her husband’s famous voice. Audrey was notoriously unfaithful to her husband, and her husband was notoriously unfaithful to her. Depending on whom you ask, Williams’ signature hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was either inspired by Audrey’s infidelity or, as Audrey claimed not particularly convincingly, Hank’s own guilt at having cheated on his wife. Audrey pushed Hank hard, but she also played a central role in launching his career. 

She was a gift and a curse, his soul mate and the woman who drove him to nadirs of personal and professional self-destruction. She survived Hank long enough to become a professional widow whose life’s work involved keeping the Hank Williams money train rolling along full steam. Williams’ first wife became the protector of her husband’s legacy even after he divorced her and married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar in not one but two public ceremonies where the adoring public could pay handsomely to see Williams get hitched, a move that may have been conceived at least partially out of spite for his ex. 

The role Audrey Williams played in her husband’s life continues to be the subject of fevered debate, but Audrey had an early opportunity to help shape her husband’s mythology when she consulted on Your Cheatin’ Heart, a 1964 Hank Williams biopic featuring George Hamilton lip-synching to Hank Williams songs sung by Hank Williams Jr. (who just happened to have Audrey as his tenacious manager/star-maker). Incidentally, Elvis was rumored to be a top choice for the lead in Your Cheatin’ Heart—its director Gene Nelson had directed him in Kissin’ Cousins and would later direct him in Harum Skarum—until Audrey reportedly vetoed the casting because she thought Elvis’ dazzling star power might obscure Williams’. 

Not surprisingly, Your Cheatin’ Heart plays fast and loose with the facts while betraying a distinct pro-Audrey bias. Williams’ second marriage has been erased from the quasi-historical record, and Hank and Audrey’s countless infidelities and affairs are barely hinted at. Yet Audrey still emerges as a calculating, ragingly ambitious wife who pushed her husband to the breaking point and beyond. 

In the grand tradition of cheesy biopics, Your Cheatin’ Heart simplifies a messy life, cutting out central characters if they don’t fit its needs and ratcheting up themes and motifs to the point of fevered melodrama. The self-conscious myth-making begins with an opening scene of sunny inter-generational/interracial harmony, as a pint-sized, incongruously chipper 14-year-old Williams happily shines shoes while his beloved black mentor Teetot plays guitar and sings to customers. Then li’l Hank opens his mouth with wholly improvised lyrics to the ditty they’re crooning. The older man shoots Williams a look of awestruck surprise: He’s got it! The kid’s got something! That humble little shoeshine boy is a wizard with words! A natural, even. 

After learning Williams some acoustic guitar, the suspiciously Magical Negro-like Teetot’s work on Earth is done. In the very next scene, Teetot shoots young Hank a distraught look that implicitly says, “Pardon the rudeness, but if you don’t mind I think I might lay me down to die on this very spot.” It’s the facial equivalent of the hacking cough of the damned that inevitably telegraphs that someone will be dying of consumption or cholera in period films. The melodrama begins early and seldom lets up. 

Williams grows up to be George Hamilton, a tall, lean drink of water peddling bogus tonics along with a heaping helping of Southern-fried charm before he meets up with Audrey and two of her associates, all of whom look at the rangy cowboy with the shit-eating grin and instantly see giant flashing dollar signs. 

Your Cheatin’ Heart has one giant, glaring, fatal fucking flaw and lots of smaller but still troubling shortcomings. I didn’t accept Hamilton as Williams on any level. It’s always a tricky business playing icons. but it can be done beautifully; think Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line or Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. But Phoenix and Blanchett are both great actors (and, in Phoenix’s case, an amazing rapper). 

Hamilton, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have suffered so much as an ice cream headache or a Big Mac attack. There’s a bracing cognitive dissonance in seeing the intense, powerful, soulful, and spiritual words of Hank Williams fly out of Hamilton’s pretty lips and nighttime soap-ready face. Hamilton’s character doesn’t seem to have listened to the songs of Hank Williams, let alone written and sung them. He’s a featherweight out of his class playing a figure of Old Testament darkness and pitch-black rages. It doesn’t help that Hamilton opens his mouth so wide while unconvincingly lip-synching that a 747 could fly into it. 

Director Gene Nelson and writer Stanford Whitmore—who has the name of a snobby preppie in ’80s teen sex comedy—don’t seem to trust the primal power of Williams’ music. Hank Williams singing “I Saw The Light” before an awed church picnic should be enough drama for a scene; it shouldn’t need to be augmented by drunken heckling, a fistfight, and a climactic throwing of pies. Yes, a pie fight. 

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With Audrey by his side, Williams makes the staggering leap from up-and-comer to big-time country star over the course of a single montage of screaming headlines and ecstatic, overflowing crowds. Williams goes from good-natured, if hotheaded, upstart to drunken, belligerent, out-of-control star in less than a minute, without hitting any stops in between. Because Your Cheatin’ Heart transforms Williams’ overloaded life story into a jukebox musical take on the Hank And Audrey Show, the root causes of Williams’ depression and binge drinking get simplified. In reality, he was in almost unbearable pain, emotional and physical—he had a never-mentioned case of spina bifida—for much of his adult life. Yet Your Cheatin’ Heart suggests the pressures of stardom and a horseback riding accident almost exclusively inspired his proverbial nightmare descent into booze and belligerence. 

As Hamilton’s Williams lurches deeper and deeper into a personal and professional hellscape of his own devising, the film grows increasingly melodramatic. In a particularly ripe bit of dialogue, someone cursed with trying to save Williams from himself hollers at him, “You think Audrey is pushing you? All she’s trying to do is pull—pull you out of the gutter!” 

Alas, Williams seems to feel he belongs in the gutter. The more famous and wealthy he gets, the more miserable he becomes. Not even a second montage, this time illustrating its subject’s leap from mere star to super-duper-megastardom and inexplicably featuring images of the actual Hank Williams (who looks almost nothing like George Hamilton), can cheer him up. 

Hamilton’s Williams turns his life around and kicks booze just in time to die a heroic death. In Your Cheatin’ Heart, Williams’ saga doesn’t end with the legend drunk, high on morphine, and cursed with a bullshit alcoholism cure that did him infinitely more harm than good perishing in the back seat of a car driven by a college kid flunky. No, here he dies in a state of saintly sobriety, surrounded by his minions and the approving ghost of his mentor. 

In a shameless yet strangely moving bit of mythmaking, Your Cheatin’ Heart has Hamilton show up at a humble roadside bar for a soda pop. He’s recognized by his adoring fans, who stop just short of holding him down and pouring whiskey forcibly down his throat in an attempt to get him to drink with them, his beloved common people.

Ah, but Saint Hank has transcended such worldly temptations. So rather than consume the demon rum, he favors them with a song, his once twisted and tormented face now open and happy, a beatific smile on his face as he selflessly blesses his minions with his profound gift. He’s almost Christ-like in his benevolence. After suffering and fighting and raging, he has finally attained a state of grace. It’s total bullshit, of course, a fan’s fevered fantasy of last-minute salvation for their favorite sinner, but it is a canny bit of mythology, as is the final scene. 

Your Cheatin’ Heart closes with a distraught promoter at the concert Williams never made announcing his death to a rapt crowd. Spontaneously, the overwhelmed audience launches into an appropriately elegiac rendition of “I Saw The Light.” It’s a savvy inversion of the usual concert dynamic. With hushed intensity, the crowd sings to the stage while the stage sits bare, illuminated only by a spotlight for a performer who’d never perform again but would grow larger and larger in the minds of everyone there. The implication is clear: In his absence, Hank Williams will always be with us. The same can’t be said of Your Cheatin’ Heart. It was ignored and dismissed at the time of its release and isn’t discussed much today. (The DVD is only available by special order via Warner Archive, despite Williams’ enduring popularity.) I still think Hank Williams’ life story could make for a great film; this sure isn’t it. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco