Having seen the new Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light recently and written a blog post about it, I thought that this would be a good occasion to revisit the most prominent of the previous tellings of Williams’ story, Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964). That’s the one which features George Hamilton as Williams, Susan Oliver as Audrey Williams and Hank Williams Jr. as the singing voice of his father.
It’s easy to make fun of this film, which bears the same resemblance to Williams’ life that Night and Day (1946) did to the life of Cole Porter, its putative subject. After seeing the film, Porter remarked to a friend, “It was the strangest feeling, as if reading about someone I knew slightly.”
As a work of fiction, Your Cheatin’ Heart is actually a likeable film, if not an ambitious or original one. Hamilton and Oliver aren’t great actors, but they have good chemistry together and it’s easy for a viewer to sympathize with them—the more so because we come in knowing from the start that their relationship is doomed. The supporting cast is solid, with Arthur O’Connell a standout as an avuncular Fred Rose and Red Buttons warm and appealing as Shorty, a composite Drifting Cowboy based (very loosely) on Don Helms.
The fact that the story isn’t going to end well—even in 1964 Williams was an icon of doomed genius, and it’s hard to believe that anybody came into the film expecting a happy ending—gives it some freshness. It employs many of the tropes of the standard fictional show-business story, which play as ironic given what we know about the ending.
For example, near the end of the film a seemingly down-and-out Williams gets one last shot at redemption, a big comeback show that could set him back on his feet. In addition, there’s a strong suggestion that he and Audrey, from whom he’s separated, might get back together. If this were a fictional film, we know what would happen next: Pessimistic critics would melt, skeptical audiences would be won over and the reunited husband and wife would embrace amid a tsunami of applause. Freeze frame, fade out.
It doesn’t happen that way, of course, and we know it won’t—even a movie this fictionalized couldn’t go that far—but the signifiers all point in that direction. The result is a dark irony, sadder and more penetrating in its way than the far-more-accurate depiction of Williams’ last days in I Saw the Light or, for that matter, in The Last Ride (2012) or Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (1980).
For all of these reasons, Your Cheatin’ Heart is worth seeing, fantasies and all.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Those fantasies are pretty substantial, though, and they’re mainly the fantasies of one person: Audrey Williams. The woman known to the world as Hank Williams’ widow—mainly because she paid Williams’ second wife, Billie Jean Jones, a then-whopping $30,000 for the right to use that title—had paid dearly for clear title to the Williams legacy, and she was determined to get her money’s worth.
Audrey served as the film’s technical adviser and, clearly, as unofficial collaborator to screenwriter Stanford Whitmore, a television writer working on only his second feature film. The resulting film is not so much the story of Williams’ life as the story of Hank and Audrey’s relationship as she saw it—which, needless to say, is not the way Williams himself would have told it. It’s also not the way most biographers, including Colin Escott in his definitive 1994 book Hank Williams: The Biography, have told it.
It would be easy to run through the incredibly long list of the ways in which the film diverges from reality. After a brief prelude—which, gratifyingly, acknowledges the influence of the black musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne on Williams’ music—the film begins with Hank meeting Audrey. Its version is made up out of whole cloth (Audrey is touring with the Drifting Cowboys and meets Williams hawking patent medicine), and virtually nothing that follows is accurate. The occasional bit of truth (their wedding, for example, which took place at a gas station before a justice of the peace) comes as a surprise, but doesn’t last long.
How did Williams get onto the Grand Ole Opry? What caused his crippling back problem? Where was Audrey when Williams died? Who was he married to at that time? Where was his final show to have been? When did Williams stop drinking? Did Williams cheat on his wife? Did she cheat on him? What was the main problem between the Williamses? None of these are answered accurately, and in every case the answer provided by the film is the answer that Audrey wanted people to believe and, presumably, wanted to be true. Who knows? By this point Audrey was well into the alcoholism and drug abuse that would kill her in 1975—by 1964 she may have thought it was true.
Independent of narrative details, the most inaccurate aspect of Your Cheatin’ Heart is its portrayal of the characters of its central figures, Hank and Audrey Williams.
As Hamilton plays him, Hank Williams is a lovable hayseed, an Alabama country boy who simply can’t handle the success that his talent brings him. Laid-back and unambitious, he wants nothing more than to sit around and pick his guitar. The closest the movie comes to a criticism of Audrey is its implicit hint that, if she hadn’t driven him to write more songs, make more records, do more shows and dream bigger dreams, he might have lived a long life in peace, playing his songs at some tiny bar on Saturday nights.
In reality Williams was a professional musician to the fingertips, an ambitious climber who wanted stardom and everything that came with it—the fame, the applause, the money, the beautiful women, the fast cars, everything. His career offered him plenty of opportunities to settle for where he was, in Montgomery, in Shreveport, in Nashville, but his eye was always on the next rung up the ladder.
Susan Oliver’s Audrey is every bit as unrealistic. Though she’s seen at the beginning as a member of the Drifting Cowboys, there’s no suggestion that she aspired to a singing career, and we never hear Oliver sing. Her relentless pursuit of her own career as a singer, and the strains it brought to the Williamses’ marriage, aren’t even hinted at. Audrey is depicted as a loving, supportive wife whose ambitions are entirely for her husband, a woman whose only flaw is perhaps an excessive enthusiasm for shopping.
As for her attitude toward her husband, the movie’s approach is summed up in one of Shorty’s lines to Williams: “You think Audrey is pushing you? All she’s trying to do is pull—pull you out of the gutter!”
Everyone else in the movie, notably Shorty and Fred Rose, is on Audrey’s side from beginning to end. Shorty is a fictional character, of course, and Rose was safely dead by the time the movie came out—he outlived Williams by barely a year, dying in 1954. Other than Rose, the only other real people depicted in the movie are Audrey’s daughter, Lycretia, and her son, Hank Williams Jr., who are seen but not heard. Billie Jean is erased from history, as is Williams’ formidable mother, Lillie, who fought with Audrey for control of her talented son. Don Helms, Jerry Rivers and the rest of the Drifting Cowboys are replaced by fictional ciphers. Even Luke the Drifter, Williams’ performing alter ego, is mentioned once in passing but not explained.
The manifold inaccuracies in the performances by Hamilton and Oliver are, of course, not their fault. They were actors hired to portray the people depicted in the script, and they do a reasonably good job of it. Neither delivers an Oscar-caliber performance, but neither is offered the kind of substantial, nuanced character that allows an actor to do his or her best work.
Given the wholesale revisions of the personalities of the main characters, the Hank Williams and Audrey Williams presented in Your Cheatin’ Heart are essentially fictional. If the film had been scrupulously accurate in all its narrative details, but retained its portrait of its two main characters, it still would have been a work of fiction.
It does, however, have a fine slate of Williams’ songs, rendered well—though not always in accordance with Williams’ own delivery—by Hank Williams Jr. His version of Williams’ voice is less meticulously accurate than Tom Hiddleston’s and further from Williams’ own style than that of Sneezy Waters in Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave. They’re still strong renditions of the songs, however, and all the more impressive given that Hank Jr. was only 15 at the time.
I Saw the Light, though it has its flaws, stands as the best film version of Williams’ story. Your Cheatin’ Heart is fine on its own terms and interesting as a peek into Audrey’s psyche, but it doesn’t really attempt to be about the real Hank Williams.