Haywire (1980)

It can be argued that Lee Remick never gave a bad performance.  We have already seen her in Nutcracker: Money, Madness, Murder, where she gave one of the greatest miniseries performances of all time in a true story.

That may have been Lee’s best work, but wait until you see “Haywire,” where Lee plays actress Margaret Sullavan, alongside Jason Robards as her husband Leland Hayward.  “Haywire,” technically the name of a Hayward estate, is a metaphor for what this family went through.  This is a character so full of knotty quirks that she defies any simple description.  It takes an actress like Lee Remick to make that believable, and, more importantly for a television audience, likable.

“Haywire” is based on a book by daughter Brooke Hayward from 1977.  Stop!  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t even put this in a category with “Mommie Dearest” because bashing mom is not the point of the story.  Brooke states up front in her book that she owes it to her siblings to have their full stories told and it’s really more about them than her parents, but what has made “Haywire” endure as a book where “Mommie Dearest” is trashy fun, is Brooke’s penetrating ability to dissect her family members with staggering objectivity, not turning them into ghouls, in order to understand the tragedy that befell nearly all of them.  Basically, her parents married and loved each other and producing three kids.  However, after they divorced and the kids got older, problems really started to appear.  Brooke’s sister and brother were both sent to mental institutions, Margaret killed herself, as did Brooke’s sister and her brother did as well, but in 2008, long after the book was written and the miniseries made.  Leland spent the last months of his life as a shell of a human being after a series of strokes.

What makes the book “Haywire” so compelling is how three kids coped with what went on around them, all so differently.  Leland was a father typical of the times, putting business first and admitting he didn’t understand fatherhood.  Margaret all but retired once she had kids, which led to some peculiar rules and typical teenager-parent battles, but this is not “Mommie Dearest” or “Detour” or any celeb’s kid trying to make bank off a crazy parent.  It is about the children and how they ended up the way they did.  Both parents were loving, but their brands of love could be frustrating.  There are no midnight rampages, no cutting down of shrubbery, no heavy drinking or drugs, no abuse (in fact, the book has a very touching moment where Leland is forced to spank Brooke and promises while he’s doing it never to do so again, a promise he remembers giving on his deathbed).

Brooke Hayward’s memoir would be interesting simply because of the tragedy of her family life, especially since she’s the ultimate survivor (a fact that she seems uncomfortable noting, but which is amazingly true), and the movie version just as touching.  However, the story is rather esoteric.  This is not Joan Crawford, Lana Turner or Bette Davis.  This is Margaret Sullavan, who made only a handful of movies and by the book’s 1977 appearance was pretty much forgotten (outside of a few lovely movies with Jimmy Stewart).  This is also Leland Hayward, who was an entertainment “super agent” before the term exists and a producer of both film and theater, but a behind-the-scenes man, the kind only remembered decades later by those with whom he worked, not the general public.

That puts a lot of pressure on a movie version (produced in part by Brooke’s brother Bill), because it means the movie version cannot trade on celebrity name to be noticed, and certainly not on camp (like “Mommie Dearest”) because the story has none.  It means that a movie version has to be excellent and stand on its own, and luckily, 30+ years after it first aired on television, “Haywire” is just that.  I encourage everyone to read “Haywire,” but if you can’t do that, at least see “Haywire,” because it is truly that special.  The movie is so faithful to the book that the screenplay often seems to be a dramatic reading of the text, which is not at all problematic as Brooke’s writing is magnificent on the page.  Considering the shredding we have seen of other books-to-miniseries affairs, this one is a marvel of tact, taste and dignity.

“This is a story of carelessness and guilt, of people who lived in extremes, a story of one family, my own.  A family that had everything, grace and joy, a fair share of beauty, privilege and power…They seemed to be the fulfillment of the American dream, but something went dreadfully wrong…What distinguishes this particular story is the extraordinary effect my parents had on their children.  They failed as they succeeded, on a massive scale.  How could it have happened to us?  Why?”

That, folks, is the opening narration of this movie!  Daring, wouldn’t you say?

The movie actually opens the same was as the book, with tragedy.  As plucky Brooke (Deborah Raffin, before “Lace II” killed off her career) is on her way to the theater where she is performing in an off-Broadway play, New Year’s Eve, 1960.  When she calls to wish her mother and stepfather a Happy New Year, she gets the grim news that her mother died, suicide.  As Brooke sits on the train, she remembers snippets of her life, almost cinematic, becoming angrier and angrier that “just as I need her most,” Margaret (Lee Remick) could have done such a thing.  Things get worse when she arrives at the theater, where her father’s secretary informs her he’s had the performance canceled out of respect, which infuriates Brooke.

Papa Leland Hayward (Jason Robards) is making all the arrangements for an ex-wife (one of many) he had barely spoken to in over a decade.  Seeing her father reminds her of a time he took the family to an airstrip (Leland was a licensed pilot and one of his hobbies was flying) where Brooke watched a plane plummet and kill the pilot.  Margaret wants to take Brooke, Bridget and Bill home, but Leland says, “nope, we’re going up,” intending to fulfill a promise he made to his children and also building them up, as strange as it may seem, to be fearless.

“Haywire” is smart enough to follow Brooke’s lead on how it’s written, which is a purposeful garble of time periods.  The scene with the children flying is followed by Leland telling Brooke every detail of Margaret’s suicide, not sparing her anything.  That might seem callous somewhere else, but it’s been established in “Haywire” already (just about 10 minutes in), that it’s playing by its own rules (or Brooke’s rules).

Brooke’s portrait of her family members is always honest and the movie follows that lead too.  Little Brooke is in her mother’s dressing rule at one point when Margaret talks about how much she hates acting and would love nothing more than to just be a wife and mother.  “I’d much rather you knew me the way I am at home, or any place but here,” she tells her sensitive six-year old daughter as she tries to talk her out of seeing the play.  Margaret continues her rant after the performance, though Brooke was enchanted, saying “actors do not make good mothers and fathers, I see it all the time.”  That’s an awfully chilling line and the ones that follow are no nicer to the profession.

In fact, Margaret apparently went to great pains to make sure her children had no idea what her job was.  There is a harrowing scene where Margaret takes the children to the park and is followed by an autograph seeker.  Not only does she deny she’s Margaret Sullavan, she launches into a blistering tirade at the woman for assuming she can get “a little bit of a person” by having a signature put into a book, but apologizes to her kids for “thoroughly bad manners” in how she treated the woman.  That’s a fair and balanced portrait.

Brooke, as a child, was enthralled by her mother.  The kids were not allowed to see her movies, but understood that she would simply disappear for a job and reappear “like a comet,” claiming to be “just a working mother.”

At the funeral, Brooke narrates that “the two people I loved most in the world were my sister Bridget (Dianne Hull) and my brother Bill (Hart Bochner), though they had not been particularly close in the years leading up to Margaret’s death.  Brooke and Bridget had a complicated relationship.  While riding in the hearse, Brooke remembers a time her sister was sleeping and she took the opportunity to tell mom how much she hated her little sister, causing Bridget to pop up from fake sleep and curse at her.  The difference between the sisters, which will manifest itself in increasingly bizarre ways, is evident from the way the view their mother’s suicide.  Brooke wonders how someone could be so selfish and not think of her family, but Bridget says, “it was her life, she did what she wanted” without any trace of bitterness.

In truth, Margaret did have a selfish streak, evident on a grand scale when she moved the family to Connecticut from California where Leland’s work is.  Without consulting him, she saw a house and bought it, moving the gang 3000 miles away.  Leland tries to reason with her, about his business and the kids friends, but Margaret trumps even that by saying their closest friends, Jane and Peter Fonda, are moving East as well (Henry Fonda being one of Margaret’s ex-husbands did not get in the way of the closeness of their children).

In Brooke’s book, perhaps the most interesting scene, full of contradictory emotions, is when Margaret insists the kids watch chicken being killed.  “It’s part of nature’s law,” she says.  Leland refuses to watch and they bicker in terms that would frighten any child.  “Don’t look,” Leland says to Brooke, turning them both around as Margaret explains that the chicken will continue to run around after its head is cut off.  Brooke has her head buried in her father, but the other two watch and cringe in horror.

Leland catches Margaret writing in her journal about an almost venal need to be the perfect mother to her kids, whom she feels are slipping away, yet then dashes off to London for six months to do a play.  Rather than simply being a megabitch, Margaret is a complex woman, confident and assured, yet about what, she herself never quite understands.  Not only does that make for fascinating characterization, but imagine what Brooke must have gone through trying to figure out her mother before, during and after writing her book.

Margaret’s three kids are not brought closer by their mother’s death.  Bridget notes that the only way she imagined she could end her “struggles with mother” was to “push her in the river…I’d jump in after her and drown.”  Bridget s the darkest of the kids, the most like her mother, which made their relationship the most complex in the family.  During their myriad arguments, which go in circles of mutual frustration, Margaret always uses the trump card of sending her to live with Leland, though Bridget sees through that ruse for what it is, a ploy for attention and guilt.

As for brother Bill, he had issues with his mother, but worse ones with his disapproving and distant father.  In a psychiatry session where both are present because Bill was kicked out of school for bringing a loaded guy (“I collect guns” is his defense, and a perfectly natural one to him), even the shrink feels Bill is best left in an institution, where he spent many years.  Bridget also spent her share of time in “nut houses,” as Bill calls them, both resenting what they feel is Brooke’s normalcy.

When Margaret goes to London to do a play, things crack.  First, she decrees that the kids cannot make a scene or cry as she leaves.  Leland begs her not to go and she chides him, saying, “you’re breaking a rule.”  In Margaret’s desire to maintain order and perfect motherhood, she has a tendency to undermine or belittle emotion, which will have frightening repercussions.  Leland, who indulges the kids rather than parenting them in her absence, stops a drive at one point to reveal that when his parents divorced, “it ruined my whole life…I never understood my mother, never forgave her, cut me in half.”  That, as we can all guess, is foreshadowing (in the book, Leland’s mother is shown to be a rather charming eccentric who dotes on Leland and the children).  He then tells the kids, “that’s one thing you’ll never have to go through.”

Is it any wonder that Bill would have certain conflicting emotions concerning Leland, who joked with his children at a young age that none of the things they wanted to be when they grow up would net them enough money to support him?  Even as a joke, that sort of things screws with a young mind.

The summer Margaret spent in London is the turning point for everyone.  “Somehow, life was never as bright again,” Brooke narrates.  Margaret’s return brings on a “family conference,” the news that she and Leland are separating.  “You can’t let this happen, you made me a promise,” Brooke protests to Leland, who can’t deny he messed that one up.

Though not in a Crawford-esque way, there is something ghoulish about Brooke’s thought pattern regarding what divorce will mean.  For instance, though Margaret is careful to tell Brooke Leland’s new woman is attractive and will probably be wonderful to the kids, Brooke says, “if she were dead, then there wouldn’t be a divorce.”  Margaret doesn’t exactly disavow the notion, rather launching into an overdone Southern drawl (she was from the South) for a discourse on pride.

Leland marries socialite Nan “Slim” Hawks (Linda Gray), while Margaret starts to date British Kenneth Wagg (Richard Johnson), and the kids decide their mother will be happiest married again, so they do all they can to help Kenneth win her hand.

As the kids grow up, Margaret’s nastiness regarding Leland intensifies.  He is more fun of the two parents because he lavishes them with gifts and let’s them be carefree while Margaret is refusing to acknowledge they are growing up and forming impressions of their own.  Margaret sees clothes as “expensive presents,” while Leland says they are “necessities” and buys his girls only the best.

Brooke is strong enough to see her parents for what they are, but Bridget’s psyche undergoes irreparable damage.  She feels herself constantly living in Brooke’s shadow, which is not true.  It’s her stepmother who tries to coax her from her shell and be a positive influence.  Nan tells her that when she goes to boarding school in Switzerland, it will be her “chance to fly” and the advice is dead on.  On her own in Switzerland, she becomes both happy and unique.

Brooke does well at boarding school in Virginia, but Bill is having the most trouble, with plummeting grades and mischievous behavior.  Unfortunately for Bridget, “who had discovered a taste for living” while apart from her mother’s smothering, Margaret decides that she cannot spend the summer before her senior year in Switzerland, mainly because she’s lonely (Kenneth, his sons and Brooke are off in Scotland).

Cleaning up Bridget’s room, Margaret finds a trove of stolen items that give her a window in her daughter’s blackening soul, but there is worse not so hidden in the room.  According to Brooke’s account, Bridget very carefully left a letter to a friend where it could be found.  The letter says, “I don’t like mother.  The truth is, I hate her.”  Bridget doesn’t actually deny any of it.  Margaret sees the stealing as taking “little bits of people you love,” but Bridget snaps that, “it’s more than I ever had from you.”  This scene exists in every Hollywood child’s memoir, the part where a child is told, “you have been given everything,” but this story has a few twists.  First, it’s actually true.  Smothering though she may be, Margaret very clearly loves her children.  They are not props to her.  Second, Bridget has a plan beyond simply goading her mother into an argument (there is no “why did you adopt me?” harangue here); she wants to go live with her father.  It’s not self-pity so much as budding self-awareness.

However, Margaret, somewhat understandably, does lapse into dramatics snarling at Bill that she supposed he wants to go live with Leland too.  She writes a lengthy letter to Brooke in Scotland, so Brooke and Kenneth rush home as Kenneth figures Margaret has “gone off the deep end.”  When they spot her at the airport, gaunt and lacking in sleep, Brooke whispers to Kenneth that “she looks terrible” and Margaret crumples into their arms, muttering “hold me, hold me.”  Brooke does her best to support her mother, who is still baffled by what she sees as the ultimate betrayal of two of her kids.  “Maybe parents shouldn’t be an example.  Maybe they should be a warning to their children,” Margaret tells Brooke in another of the movie’s most frightening moments.

Bill is as adamant about leaving as Bridget.  Brooke finds both of them “stubborn” and “selfish,” but Bill has his reasons for leaving, mainly that Margaret is always miserable and “she doesn’t want to let us grow up.”  “You’re deserting me too, you know,” Brooke tells him.  “I just assumed you’d come with us,” Bill replies, figuring the three siblings share the same feelings.  When Margaret interrupts the conversation to help Bill pack, her self-control is gone almost immediately and turns so pathetic begging Bill to stay that Brooke has to turn away from watching the crumbling woman at the center of the scene.  So out of her mind is Margaret that she chases the car before falling on the grass in a crumpled mess.  “It will never be all right again,” Margaret sobs.

“Mother was right, nothing was ever the same again,” Brooke narrates, describing how Margaret, Bridget and Bill all ended up in asylums as “goodbye was to become the most common word in our vocabulary.”

Fast forward to 1971, where Brooke is two-times divorce with three kids.  Bill calls to urge her back to NYC as Leland has had a stroke and is in the hospital.  The once-vital Leland Hayward, who could manage movies, movie stars and more all at once, is now a “slave to technology,” as Brooke sees her helpless father in the bed.

This reminds Brooke of a pact she had with her father.  When she and Bridget were very young, they were singing in their bedroom during a party their parents were hosting.  Margaret repeatedly warned them to stop and threatened spankings.  When they disobeyed one last time, Leland tried to step in, but Margaret snaps, “it is not a parent’s job to be popular.  You don’t have the guts for it” and forges ahead with the spankings.  Leland has no heart for it and promises her after attempting it once, that he would never do it again, keeping his word as already noted.

Back in the past is the only way we can keep Bridget’s story going.  Brooke remembers when Bridget was released from the institution and went to live on her own.  Though seemingly better, lines like “you   can have the clock when I die,” anger and worry Brooke.

One of the most shocking scenes in Brooke’s book turns into one of the most shocking scenes in “Haywire,” if only because it’s so utterly ludicrous (and way ahead of its time).  Brooke and Bill want Leland unhooked from all of the medical equipment to die at home with dignity  The doctor is aghast that anyone would willing let someone go, no matter the quality of life.  “Think of him as a pet…a creature you’re fond of, that you love, that needs you to look after him,” the doctor tells them.  “You know, doc, you’re loonier than I ever was,” Bill says, for once the voice of reason since Brooke is too shocked to reply.

Back in the past, 11 years earlier to be exact, right after Bill and Bridget left home, Margaret descending into wild self-pity faster than into the bottle, decides to go back to work as an actress.  Playing a nun on a television broadcast.  A misplaced prop causes a huge argument between Margaret and the young director (Christopher Guest), ending only when she storms off the set and refuses to return, all within 24 hours of the broadcast.  She ends up at their old family house in Connecticut, lying in the dirt in a depressed semi-coma.  Brooke visits her, informing Margaret that she’s taking acting classes, much to the latter’s chagrin.

In 1971, Leland is begging his children to let him die at home.  “Get me out,” he says in a rare moment of lucidity.  Back into the past we go, this time following one of Bill’s escape attempts from his Midwestern institution.  He and his rather ditzy companion are captured the next day.  Brooke tries to get Leland to free him, but Leland is adamant that Bill stay incarcerated.  Ultimately, Leland caves and rescues his son from jail.  Though not before Jason Robards makes sure to snag a whopper speech for himself (Lee Remick has gotten all of the good tirades so far).  A hissing Leland threatens to cut Bill out of the will, though Bill gets the upper hand quickly when Leland admits he and Nan are kaput.  Bill seems awfully sane, raging that Leland had him committed without a trial or any defense.  Bill works some kind of charm on his father, who gets the institution to keep him only three more months and then free him.

Also back in the past is Bridget, who has gotten a summer internship at the Williamstown Theater Festival after being released from her confinement.  She may even have fallen in love, but rather than enjoy it, she picks a fight with Brooke, only to then turning sugary sweet to end it.  She is quickly quickly slipping into a terrible fight with depression and medication, not to mention alcohol.

In and out of the past with Leland, Brooke and Bill seem to make their peace with him.  After a military stint, Bill even went on to co-produce “Easy Rider.”  That leaves only Bridget and the summation of her story.  Sometime in the 60s, around the time she was fighting with Brooke at Williamstown she discovered she had epilepsy, which was still then considered by many to be emotional and not physical.  Apparently, this has been going on since she was in school in Switzerland and declared legally dead at one point!

Bill asks Leland who the top 10 most beautiful women are and sickly Leland has answers ready.  Three he married (twice to Lola, once to Margaret, once to Nan, though his current wife Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is not mentioned), Kate Hepburn, Garbo, Fay Wray, a shock to all of them, Dietrich, Isak Deniesen, Justine Johnson and Esme O’Brian.  The last two are completely unknown to the kids, but when an attendant comes in to unhook him to take him home, where everyone has agreed he should be when he dies, he asks where Bridget is, a sign of certain confusion, though Brooke lets it pass without correcting him.

It’s at this moment, very near the end of the movie, that the miniseries veers from the book, and really only for dramatic purposes.  What happens in the next few scenes with Brooke are actually part of the opening of the book.  There is no judgment to be made here.  The book had a very specific structure that used the past to explain the present, where the movie does have to make sure it keeps the drama going at regular intervals.  The outcome is the same and faithful to Brooke’s interpretation.

That causes Brooke to flash back to a night about a decade before when a chipper Bridget called in the middle of the night to tell Brooke she was pregnant and that the next morning, she would cook her big sister a great breakfast.  It’s an odd conversation, no matter how you look at it, unless you are Brooke.  From the outside, it’s clear Bridget is suffering a manic episode, extreme happiness that slowly mutates into something darker, even if just barely.  Bridget herself even recognizes all is to well and brings up examples from the past to illustrate it.  However, Brooke, though puzzled, just chalks it up to a bit of sisterly strangeness.

Brooke shows up the next morning as planned and as she pounds on the door yelling Bridget’s name, it’s intercut with Kenneth doing the same to Margaret back in 1960.  Without having to say a word, it’s clear what has happened to Bridget.  However, Brooke does have have the door burst down, because she had, in her own words, and “intense” desire to maintain Bridget’s beloved privacy.  It’s not until after a day of errands that Brooke arrives home to hear the news of her sister’s death.

At a memorial service for Bridget, a friend tells Brooke that yes, she had the worst genetics a family can concoct, so “you either go over to that window and jump or you go on.”  Back in the present, Leland asks her what is the one time in her life to which she would most eagerly return.  She declines an immediate answer.  He is taken home to die and soon Brooke is summoned to his home, but by the time she arrives, Leland has died.  She insists on seeing him, saying “there’s something I have to tell him, I promised.”  The theme of promises kept and broken is remaining potent and integral through the final moments.

The moment Brooke wants back?  A time Leland decided to drive to see Margaret, long after the divorce, to discuss Bridget’s problems.  After a 12-year separation, Margaret is very nervous, but manages a calmness once she actually shows.  The tension is quickly broken and perhaps some wounds are healed.  In the present, Brooke becomes a mess of tears as she realizes her parents always loved each other, no matter the time spent apart and that was the moment that made it clear to her.  This she relays to her father’s corpse.

“I wept for my family, all of us.  For excesses, our delusions, our inconsistencies.  Not that we cared too much or too little, but that we had been careless with the best of our resources, each other.  It’s as if we had taken for granted, like our talents and interests and riches, another chance, another summer, another Maggie, another Leland, another Brooke or Bridget or Bill,” Brooke narrates to close the miniseries.

What a perfect ending!  Why?  Because nowhere in that sentence is there even a scrap of Hollywood self-pity.  If it hasn’t been obvious since the beginning, what makes “Haywire” so interesting is that it’s about a typical family.  It may not seems so since there are famous names involved, but the celebrity aspect of these character is rarely even a plot point.  Compare that with most star or child of star autobiographies.  No, “Haywire” is almost a mental health primer for coping with the ups and downs of its various forms.  Most of the time, this family of five got it wrong and the consequences were sadly permanent.  However, that does not make them special as this story is endlessly repeated by hundreds, thousands, of families who lose control to such debilitating conditions.

So “Haywire” exists sui generis as a miniseries.  It’s neither romance, history nor adventure.  It’s the story of a family full of unique individuals who were like molecules bouncing a million times a minute, trying to get away from each other, when the reasons they were doing so were just what should have been keeping them together: it’s the inside of the American dream, what goes on behind the picket fences and manicured lawns, behind the frozen smiles and apple pies.  It’s the truths of the Hayward family, unpleasant, forlorn, depressing, yet accessible and understandable.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

4 Comments to “Haywire (1980)”

  1. Linda 16 August 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    I think you left out a very significant detail about why Margaret Sullavan had to devorced Leland Hayward. She was from the South, and it was expected of any woman to devoce a husband who had an affair. It was all about her, not her faimly’s future.

    One reason for her suicide may have been the fact that she was losing her hearing and couldn’t work any more in acting.

    • Bj Kirschner 12 November 2016 at 1:08 pm #

      Yes, true, but I was discussing the miniseries, not her life. None of that is even brought into the movie. It would have been great if they had added it, but I suppose they thought those details would be less entertaining and cut them from the filmed version of the book based on her story (which, to be fair, also leaves out huge chunks of details). Sullavan was a wonderfully interesting person, but the scope of “Haywire” is only a narrow part of the story. It would be great if a new really detailed account of her life were written, she deserves it.

  2. Linda 16 August 2016 at 9:08 pm #

    I misspelled divorce, why I don’t know?

    • Bj Kirschner 12 November 2016 at 1:13 pm #

      Don’t worry, the grammar police have the day off. 🙂