Gloria Grahame’s acting was like sex: even when it was really bad, it was still pretty fucking great. Maybe it was her pouty, cotton-stuffed lips. Or her eyes, which alternately purred, “Yeah, I know what you want,” then in a blink contradicted themselves with pleas of a better life. Eddie Muller said last year in his introduction of Fritz Lang’s Human Desire that “you were never quite sure whether she was going to mix you a cocktail or slit your throat.” But the best way of explaining the appeal of Gloria Grahame is to understand something Humphrey Bogart told her while they were filming the seminal noir love story In a Lonely Place: “Stay in the shadows and let the camera come to you.”
Grahame claimed to be a descendant of British royalty, but the closest she came to royalty was the mistress of Noir City, her mark in Hollywood history. Neglected at MGM, who didn’t know what to do with her, her contract was sold to RKO, with included films at Colombia for Harry Cohn. She won an Oscar for her most anemic performance, the trademark of many classic Hollywood stars. Her star faded nearly as quickly as it arrived, fizzling out by the end of the 1950s when she moved to England and turned to Broadway (imagine her Lady Macbeth). A decade after her death, Annette Bening‘s performance as a sexy but dim con artist in The Grifters was nominated for an Oscar, a performance which Bening herself said was modeled after Gloria Grahame from The Big Heat. Her likeness has been used on hardcover novels. Although no longer a household name, Grahame’s influence on art and culture is still with us today.
And yet, for such a beautiful, earthy actress who made her mark in film noirs, it’s astonishing how few times Grahame played a true femme fatale. There is, of course, her conniving turn as a woman attempting to kill Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, possibly her only turn as a true fatal woman. Lower on the danger thermometer are her roles for Fritz Lang in Human Desire and The Big Heat, where she tries to take justice into her own hands, but Grahame remains the most sympathetic character in both films, and her attempts at vengeance are justly deserved. She was icy in Macao and The Good Die Young but was used more as decoration and had little to do with the crime of each respective film. Violet Bick of It’s a Wonderful Life was nearly a prostitute in Pottersville, sure, but for the vast majority of the film, she’s little more than the innocent town flirt. Most sympathetic are her performances full of world-weary loneliness as prostitute in Crossfire (her favorite performance), and a failed actress still hopeful for a brighter future in In a Lonely Place. The contradiction visible in nearly all these performances is between Grahame’s superficial flirtiness and her inner vulnerability. Her characters might’ve been open to a night of passion, but at the end of the next morning, all she really wanted was be taken care of.
So let’s begin with her breakthrough performance, as Ginny in Crossfire. Just as George Bailey inadvertently saves Violet Bick from a life of prostitution, Frank Capra’s casting of Grahame in It’s a Wonderful Life saved her from boredom and gave her her first small breakthrough, which included being on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1946. And it’s really prevalent that Grahame’s contract should’ve been sold after only 2 credited film appearances from the wooden glamor of MGM to the darker shadows of RKO, for RKO‘s reputation as making some of the best film noirs allowed Grahame a chance to show more of her weary soul than her youthful body. By the time she was cast in Crossfire, a military noir about anti-Semitism, she had all the experience of having dreams dashed away. Even as her career was about to take off, she still couldn’t forget the wasted years at MGM where nobody knew what to do with her. This longing made her the perfect candidate to play weary prostitute Ginny (or as I like to think of her, the Pottersville version of Violet), where Grahame perfectly brings deft gravity to what could easily have been a cliched role in the wrong hands–just watch her eyes as she hesitates into accepting a dance asked only out of gratitude and not by a desire for sex. She was nominated for her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and by some contemporary opinions (such as yours truly), given the competition she should have won.
After an unsuccessful 3 years at RKO, Grahame was given her finest role when her then-husband, Nicholas Ray, thought she would be perfect for the female lead in his latest film. The movie was hauntingly titled In a Lonely Place. Grahame would be playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, who was also the producer. The role was one she could only understand all too well: A failed, somewhat hardened actress who’s spent too many sunrises in Tinseltown and not enough film credits to prove it. She meets and falls in love with a dysfunctional screenwriter named Dixon Steele, an alter-ego for the director Nicholas Ray. But like the name of the character she portrays, christened Laurel Gray, Grahame transcends the black-and-white conventions of a femme fatale; Laurel Gray’s actions–fluffing Dix’s pillows, nurturing his artistic needs, providing emotional support–have no ulterior motive. They are done purely and simply out of love and a need to love someone in the lonely place that is Hollywood.
I will never be able to write without bias or passion for Ray’s film. I can’t. I think it’s the most exquisite, romantic, emotional, personal film ever to have come out of Hollywood. No other film can warm my heart in the hope that Laurel and Dix will overcome their flaws and find hard-earned happiness in each other’s arms, and then shred it on a cheese grater when I see their chance slowly fall apart. It’s the kind of heart-breaking love story I love: two people who are a perfect match for each other but their own adult neuroses and vulnerabilities are what cause complications and road blocks, not the four-letter “F” word which screenwriters love to use as a plot device to get pretty people to crash into each others’ lives. Nicholas Ray and his duo were too wise to belittle their audience, and anyone who first watches In a Lonely Place will understand this, and be grateful. As the doomed lovers, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame play off each other marvelously, and together they carry the weight of a fragile love affair–and all the emotions that come with it–from the first frame of Bogart’s eyes aimlessly watching the road on a lonesome night like many before, to Grahame’s tear-stained declaration of love walking out the door.
Although In a Lonely Place should’ve been Grahame’s breakthrough to better projects, the film wasn’t a spectacular box-office success and when she went back to RKO to literally ask Howard Hughes for better roles, he admitted that he never watched Ray’s film and refused to loan her out for choice projects such as Born Yesterday and A Place in the Sun. She toiled in supporting roles which required little more than to be beautiful decoration that, when Nicholas Ray did uncredited re-shoots for Macao, she actually told him she wouldn’t ask for a penny of alimony if he could get her out of that movie (time has now proved that Ray didn’t succeed).
But some of her best work was yet to come, and it was Fritz Lang who gave her two of her most memorable and fascinating roles in film noir. The first was 1953’s The Big Heat, perhaps Grahame’s most famous role of a gangster’s moll who takes a hot pot of coffee to the face, in the process transforming her from shallow opportunist to vengeful anti-heroine. With one role, Grahame isn’t just terrific, she became immortally cinematic–and cinematically immortal–as the one woman who didn’t back down to Lee Marvin. Her much-deserved revenge has agelessly survived as one of the best and delicious examples of a woman scored ever burned into memory.
Her second and final film for Lang is the gem Human Desire, in which she is reunited with her Big Heat co-star Glenn Ford. Like the trio’s first outing, Grahame’s role begins as a somewhat dim woman in the wrong relationship, but by the end she enters the gray area between traditional femme fatale and a woman who deserves her revenge. Grahame portrays Vicki, a woman in a dreadfully unhappy marriage to Carl (played by Broderick Crawford, which is the first sign this character’s a schmuck). But Carl is not nearly as benign as Mr. Dietrichson of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity; in the first 30 minutes, the recently laid off Carl manages to convince his wife into “talking” with his boss (her former lover) into getting his job back, beats her when he finds out she did more than talk, kills his boss, forces her into helping disposing of the body, and then blackmails her with proof of her involvement. This guy’s not gonna win Husband of the Year anytime soon.
It’s only natural that she would take up with the more stable and age-appropriate returning vet Glenn Ford, who is drawn enough into her spell that he agrees to take part of her plan to murder her husband after she reveals her black-and-blue bruises. But unlike The Big Heat, her revenge is not one of maniacal laughs, but one tinged with utter sadness and despair. In fact, the film evades the pattern set by Double Indemnity by NOT having Ford go through with the killing of Grahame’s husband, thereby leaving her without an exit. I have never felt more sympathy towards a character who is designed to be a femme fatale than I have for Grahame’s Vicki, and if the true femme fatales of WWII summoned the dark demons of the working man’s ideal of an American Dream, the noir females of the 50s revealed a suffocated look at the suburban housewife. In the end it is Vicki’s sad knowledge of this that leads her to ultimately entice her husband into ending her life, in a conclusion that reminds one of the finale of In a Lonely Place, though without a sense of irony or haunted loss that poetically infused Ray’s film.
Grahame’s film career all but fizzled out by 1959, when she bowed out and returned to the stage, with at least one more scandalous marriage and divorce in her future and a trail of men in her past. One of her more memorable final roles was as Robert Ryan’s sultry neighbor in Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, in which she memorably steals the precious moments she’s in, but by that time her vocal cadence had come to a point where it sounded like she was trying desperately to get over a stutter; although this could be considered a character quirk Grahame came up with, it’s probably more likely due to her numerous attempts to make her lips appear bigger, and her insecurity about her body would indirectly contribute to her death–when she learned she had cancer, she denied being sick and refused treatment that would alter her physically for the worse. She would die of cancer at the age of 57.
But like Vicki’s own reasons for torturing her husband into killing her, Grahame’s end only mirrored the sultry image she forever left on the screen: Gloria Grahame tempted Fate, and Fate accepted.
Bio: Serena Bramble is a woman of no importance (yet), but she aspires to be a film editor, having been awarded the first-ever Endless Night Award at the 8th Annual Noir City by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller (the prize was the latest edition of Final Cut Pro). A graduate of the Santa Rosa Junior College, she hopes to soon obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in film. She has been a devoted and utterly romantic lover of film, especially the classics, since the age of 17 when she fatefully watched His Girl Friday and never looked back in the rear view mirror. And she doesn’t give a damn if you are directing the Linda Lovelace biopic, if you say Nicholas Ray is overrated, she will shun you on Facebook for the rest of your virtual life.
You can find Serena on Facebook or visit her blog, Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind: http://briefcinematicencounters.blogspot.com/2009/12/aloha.html
“The love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.”