In the summer of 1987, I took a trip with a group from my church to Nashville, TN. One of my strangest memories from that trip was visiting the home of a pastor whose church we had visited. He lived in the former home of singer Hank Williams. He gave us a tour of the house and pointed out the exact spots where all sorts of bad things happened. I remember that the gold faucet fixtures in the bathroom were in the shape of birds. That memory came rushing back to me when I sat down recently to watch the Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart, featuring George Hamilton as Williams.
I admit, while I knew who Hank Williams was, I didn’t know that much about him. I didn’t exactly grow up in the country music culture. I didn’t know about his battle with alcoholism and didn’t realize he had died at such a young age (29). This film certainly got me interested to learn more about him, but it also didn’t take much investigating to learn that the accuracy of many parts of this film is debatable.
The film follows Williams’ life from his time as a kid shinning shoes in Alabama, to selling tonic in a medicine show, to huge success as a singer and songwriter. Early in the film we see him meet his future wife and manager, Audrey, played by Susan Oliver. Supposedly, Audrey was one of the driving forces behind the scenes of this film, which could explain certain historical inaccuracies and omissions. We also begin to see Hank’s quick and, at times, violent temper as well as his dependence on alcohol. The change from loveable Hank to angry drunk Hank in the film actually happens pretty quickly. Maybe it really happened that way in real life, but here it seems too abrupt. There is an odd mix here of scenes that show the negative aspects of the man and others meant to elevate his image. For example, the scene where a music publisher has Hank write a hit song on the spot and he comes up with “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You),” sorry, but it feels a bit far-fetched. Might’ve happened that way, but it feels made up.
On a whole, the film plays a lot like a TV movie. It feels over-scripted, with characters speaking in long-winded sentences that feel unnatural. Yet, George Hamilton is very good in the lead role. Rumor has it that Elvis Presley was the first choice of the producers, but Audrey rejected that idea. Credit should also be given to Hank Williams Jr., only a young teenager at the time this was made, performing his father’s singing voice. Together, he and Hamilton convey one of the most important aspects of the character, the joy of performing. The musical sequences are definitely the highlight of the movie. One could probably argue that without them you wouldn’t have much of a movie. Even if today’s audiences didn’t find the story of Hank Williams intriguing, this would serve as a worthy introduction to his music.
From what I can tell, the movie does take great liberties with the facts. The ending especially tries to show Williams as having been clean and sober at the time of his death, yet most of the info I’ve found online tells a very different story. But that sort of thing is par for the course when it comes to biopics. I have a feeling that the true story of Hank Williams could make for an interesting film. This one is certainly entertaining, but it may be better to think of it as a work of fiction.