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Gloria Grahame Turns Up the Big Heat at BFI Southbank

Picture of Lynsey Ford
Updated: 8 November 2017
To commemorate the UK release of the late-in-life Gloria Grahame biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, BFI Southbank in London is screening a retrospective devoted to the movies of the enigmatic actress. Culture Trip talked to the series’ curator Jo Botting.

Gloria Grahame is best remembered for portraying mesmerizing, often damaged or troublemaking women in a string of classic post-war film noirs, including Crossfire (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and Human Desire (1954). A mercurial combination of seductiveness, slightly tawdry glamour, and vulnerability, Grahame enjoyed a fruitful but often rocky four-decade career on film, stage, and television on both sides of the Atlantic before she died of cancer at the age of 57 in 1981.

Gloria Grahame and Robert Young in Crossfire | © RKO Radio Pictures

Paul McGuigan’s new film Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool charts the bittersweet romance between Grahame and a struggling Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner, 28 years her junior, in the last two years of her life. Based on Turner’s memoir, the film elicits touching performances by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell as the star-crossed lovers. It opens in the UK on 17 November and in the US on 29 December.

Good at Being Bad: The Films of Gloria Grahame runs from 13 November to 30 December at BFI Southbank. The season’s curator Jo Botting here discusses Grahame’s talent and personality.

Culture Trip: What makes Gloria Grahame such a fascinating subject for a retrospective?

Jo Botting: She was an amazing actress and a unique person. She had a joie de vivre and lived in the moment. She was passionate, to such a degree that she couldn’t control her impulses, which led to some scandalous incidents in her life. At the same time, she had a vulnerability and self-doubt that comes across in both her performances and private life.

Gloria Grahame and James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) | © RKO Radio Pictures

She’s very compelling to watch. She commands the screen and dominates her every scene. As a stage actress, she was incredibly professional. A star of Broadway at the age of 18, Gloria was never content with her performance, but was constantly developing her role and never gave the same performance twice. She was fantastic in film noir, but also does comedy brilliantly. However small her role was, she always made such a big impression, and it’s very telling that her first Oscar nomination [for Crossfire] and her win [for The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)] were both for supporting roles. In fact, she only appears in The Bad and the Beautiful for a few minutes.

CT: What’s your favourite Grahame film?

JB: My personal favourite is Human Desire, which I know is not everybody’s preferred title. The Big Heat is the one most often cited as her standout film: it’s the one in which she plays the gangster’s moll who has coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin, probably her most famous scene. She is fantastic in the film, but in my view Human Desire is more demanding and shows off her skill brilliantly. Her Vicki Buckley is such a complex character, and Grahame gradually peels away the layers of a woman seen through the eyes of the two men in her life. On one hand, you feel sorry for her because of the life she’s had and the way men have treated her; on the other, you are appalled at how manipulative and evil she can be. So that was the title I most wanted to include.

Gloria Grahame in Human Desire | © Columbia Pictures

The two rarer titles I managed to programme are interesting for different reasons. Merton of the Movies is a 1947 comedy that is very difficult to see. It’s set during the silent period, and Gloria plays Beulah Baxter, a movie star. The other lesser known title is The Glass Wall [1953]. in which the Italian star Vittorio Gassman plays a man who comes to America as an illegal immigrant and must avoid the authorities who are trying to deport him. He meets Maggie Summers [Grahame], a woman living on the breadline, who is used and abused by the men around her. They form a bond, and she tries to help him.

CT: Which of her performances moves you the most?

JB: I think the most moving performance she gave was in The Man Who Never Was [1956]. which unfortunately we are not able to show. Gloria plays the relatively small role of Lucy Sherwood, who has lost someone in the war. Her ability to communicate grief is incredible.

Gloria Grahame in The Man Never Was |
Gloria Grahame in The Man Never Was | © 20th Century-Fox

The special talent she brought to her film performances is the ability to communicate emotion—she called it “the thought behind the look.” She often played women who are desperate for male attention, to such a degree that even violence will satisfy the yearning. She had a very unusual voice with a delicate lisp, so though she often has some vicious lines of dialogue, they are always tempered by her soft delivery.

CT: What’s your opinion of the scandal surrounding Gloria’s private life, in particular her marriage to her former stepson Tony Ray?

JB: She was incredibly impulsive. She fell in love very deeply but could fall out of it quite quickly—she was married and divorced four times. I understand why people are fascinated by scandal, and her relationship with Tony Ray certainly raised eyebrows. Observers would have been able to work out that she had known Tony since he was 13, when [as the wife of director Nicholas Ray] she was his stepmother at the age of 25. What the press didn’t know was that she had an affair with him at that time. If this had got out, it would have killed her career.

When she eventually married Tony, her film career had come to an end, but this may have happened anyway as Hollywood was changing and film noir was over. I don’t think men necessarily had their personal lives dissected in the same way that women did to the degree that it overshadowed their careers. As it turned out, her marriage to Tony Ray in 1960 lasted 14 years. It was the longest relationship she had and produced two children.

Gloria Grahame publicity portrait for Naked Alibi (1954) | © Universal Pictures

CT: What do you think about her addiction to plastic surgery?

JB: Despite her incredible beauty and naturalness, she was very sensitive about her looks, particularly her upper lip which she felt wasn’t full enough. This resulted in her having several rounds of plastic surgery, which ended up with her upper lip becoming numb, making it harder for her to talk. She would also try to make the lip look more plump using pieces of cotton wool, which also affected her speech. Directors would tell her to take it out, but apparently more than one leading man ended up with cotton wool in his mouth after a screen kiss.

CT: If there’s another Grahame film visitors to Southbank should look out for, what is it?

JB: In A Lonely Place is a brilliant film that opens a window on a brief but intense romance between Gloria’s character and Humphrey Bogart’s. It’s a more understated role than many she played, but she is just as compelling. Her character, Laurel Gray, is not typically glamorous, often wearing slacks and flat shoes rather than tight skirts and high heels. Laurel comes across as a woman totally at ease with herself, who knows she’s attractive and appears in control of her situation, however much that may or may not be true.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place | © Columbia Pictures

CT: Why did you choose to include Oklahoma! [1955], which was a very different film from the noirs she’s famous for?

JB: Oklahoma! is a key title in Grahame’s filmography. Even though the musical was not her natural habitat, it shows her versatility. She wasn’t a natural chanteuse. She had played singers in other films and her singing voice was dubbed in all of them. But her natural singing voice is charming and naïve, which suits the character of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! Her performance is a vital element of the film’s comedy, providing an antidote to the menacing storyline of Jud Fry’s pursuit of Laurey. Underneath, Ado Annie is not a million miles away from the roles Gloria played in film noir. She’s a woman at the mercy of her impulses, with uncontrollable passions.

CT: What became of Gloria in later years?

JB: In 1959, she made Odds Against Tomorrow, which was her last role as a screen siren and her last film noir. After that, there was a trend for ageing actresses to appear in horror movies, the first being Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962]. Gloria was still too young and glamorous to play such roles; she was a generation behind Davis and Crawford. She did make a couple of exploitation movies later on, including Blood and Lace [1971] and Mansion of the Doomed [1976], but she also played some straight roles and did US television and UK theatre. Of course, she spent much of the 1960s devoting herself to her family.

She developed breast cancer in the 1970s but managed to overcome it. But the cancer resurfaced in 1981 when she was doing theatre in the UK. She spent her last few weeks with the family of her former lover, Peter Turner. Eventually, two of her children took her back to New York, but she died almost immediately of peritonitis. You get the impression that those around her didn’t believe that anyone so vivacious could die so young.

CT: How would you sum up Gloria Grahame?

JB: She was an incredibly dedicated actress who should be remembered for the performances she left behind and her eagerness to perfect her craft. Whatever genre or medium she worked in, she exuded a combination of intensity, impetuousness, and vulnerability. which were all elements of her personality.

Gloria brought a rare depth to every character she played. She never walked through a part, was always fully prepared, not just in terms of learning her lines but in finding her motivation and bringing a spontaneity to her performance. She was truly a unique actress, and I hope this season will bring her to the attention of a new generation of cinema-goers.