Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Portraits of Awesomeness: Sterling Hayden

Hey you guys,

So I just watched Winter Kills again and was struck by the incomparable awesomeness of Sterling Hayden, one of my all-time favorite actors. Hayden doesn't have much of a part in Winter Kills. In fact he's little more than a red herring but there's something strange and majestic about actors who are emboldened and distinguished by age rather than diminished by it. Hayden certainly falls into into that category. So does the equally towering John Huston, who is gloriously larger-than-life as a feral parody of Joe Kennedy. Where Richard Condon's Manchurian Candidate famously anticipated the Kennedy assassination, WInter Kills, another cursed Condon adaptation, is a delirious black-comic fantasia riffing madly on the myriad conspiracy theories swirling around that fateful day in Dallas.


But where Huston would only appear in any film offered him, including absolute dreck like De Sade and Myra Breckinridge, Hayden was far more choosy in his parts. Like many sensible people he didn't think much of film acting and appeared in films only to finance more worthwhile pursuits, like boating, alcoholism, travel and smoking giant piles of weed. Hayden didn't appear in many films in the seventies but his filmography during that glorious era includes The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, 1900 and the aforementioned Winter Kills, which I cannot recommend highly enough, if only for the cast (Huston, Hayden, Mifune, Jeff Bridges, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Perkins and Eli Wallach for starters).

By that point Hayden had already led at least several spectacular, incident-packed lives. He ran away from home as a teen to become a sailor and sailed the world many times. When he hooked up with Paramount as a handsome young man the studio tried to sell the strapping, 6'5 behemoth as "The Most Beautiful Man In Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God". During World War II he parachuted into Croatia and won the Silver Star.

Though initially promoted as a giant slab of beefcake Hayden established himself as a leading man of brooding intensity and bracing toughness in movies like The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing. He might not have given the best performance in Dr. Strangelove but he definitely contributed the most underrated as General Jack D. Ripper, a paranoid, knuckle-dragging right-winger convinced that the Russians are corrupting America's proud seed through our drinking water. He's a lunatic utterly convinced of his own sanity.

Hayden's WWII heroics led him to briefly embrace the Communist Party. He later named names before the HUAC, a transgression for which he never forgave himself. Though he didn't tell HUAC anything they didn't already know, naming names haunted him until his dying day. He wrote an autobiography and novels that reflected his lifelong love of the sea. He was, in other words, a portrait of awesomeness.

So here is my question for you, dear readers: have any of you read Hayden's autobiography or novels? Which Hayden performance is your favorite? Why? Discuss. Please.