Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Lillian Roth was once a rising star, a singer with a powerful brassy voice and a charming dimpled smile that seemed destined for great things in the early talkie era. Appearances in Animal Crackers and Madame Satan will remind film buffs that they know her work, but enduring fame during this era eluded her. Why? Roth was an alcoholic and was at the beginning of her downward spiral in the early 1930s.
Roth was one of the first stars to admit her shortcomings and break her story to the public. In 1953, she appeared on This is Your Life, a television show which surprised an unsuspecting celebrity guest with stories and people from their past. In this episode, Roth was a planned guest and agreed to tell her story in hopes of helping other alcoholics who did not yet have the courage to face recovery.
She once had fame and fortune, but the death of her fiancee from tuberculosis sent her into a major depression. She used alcohol as a crutch, requiring more and more to face the day, and then a daily dosage to keep herself from becoming violently sick. She bounced from husband to husband, often impulsively marrying men, leading to disaster. The worst was to third husband Mark Harris, a man who schemed to cheat her out of her remaining money, and savagely and frequently beat her, several times sending her to the hospital. She stayed in the marriage because Harris had a son from a previous relationship and Roth desperately wanted to be a mother. The relationship finally became perilous enough for her to get away and to secure a divorce, but she had not yet hit rock bottom.
It took more than a decade of alcohol abuse to destroy Roth's body. Her organs began to fail, and her mother scraped up enough money to institutionalize her daughter. The doctors helped her to detox and tried to teach her to take care of herself while staying sober. They warned her that even one drink could kill her. It was not enough. Roth turned to the bottle and was appalled that she didn't have the strength to beat it by herself. At her lowest point, she went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in desperation. The people there recognized her call for help, and even though she tried to backtrack and minimize her problems, they took her in and helped her detox. They introduced her to the 12 steps and showed her that people from all walks of life could be alcoholics. They taught her not to be ashamed, and to take life and sobriety one day at a time.
Her fascinating, heartbreaking and triumphant story can be found in her two books: I'll Cry Tomorrow and Beyond My Worth. Her appearance on This is Your Life inspired many people to find help for their addiction, and inspired her to write her first memoir. It sold more than 100,000 copies in a few months and inspired a biopic starring Susan Hayward, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
Hayward is excellent in the part, alternately vulnerable, charming and gruesome. Although the film is harrowing, it leaves out a lot of the gory details, especially the violence. The style is all 1950s; the film makers made no attempt to give Roth's early days an authentic 1910s-1930s look. As a result Hayward resembles Roth of the 1950s more than from her youth. The "Sing You Sinners" number is anachronistic but entertaining, and Hayward did her own singing. The DVD includes footage of the two at the premiere of the film and a short film featuring Roth from 1934 called Story Conference.
Roth's legacy is her impact on the recovery community. She and her husband Bert McGuire, who she met in AA, worked to establish AA meetings across Australia. She became a face of recovery, an example of how much alcohol addiction can wreck a life, but also that it is possible to triumph against it and find success again. Roth performed a nightclub act and found work in the theater in shows like I Can Get it For You Wholesale and 70, Girls, 70. Roth died a few months after having a stroke in 1980.