She’s a Tramp

Is it fanciful to suggest that Gloria Grahame was just too damn interesting for Hollywood?  MGM signed her after years on the stage and, apparently very quickly, decided she’d never be a star, using her only modestly in a few comedies before loaning her out to RKO, where she was given a real chance as part of the ensemble of It’s a Wonderful Life. Her sweetly flirtatious Violet, who becomes a whore in the alternate universe, proved to be something of a prototype; enough to convince someone watching that this girl was meant for distinctly George Baileyless worlds, and so her noir career was born the next year with her Oscar-nominated role for Edward Dmytryk in Crossfire.

Yet MGM weren’t entirely wrong in doubting her star potential: despite winning an Academy Award with them for The Bad and the Beautiful, leading roles largely eluded her, and she became one of those actresses around whom a reputation for being ‘difficult’ settles (i.e. a smart one).  Biography attests to both a nonconformist streak and a forthright manner in Grahame – when questioned about her work with the legendary likes of Dmytryk, Vincente Minnelli, Frank Capra and Elia Kazan (not to mention her husband, Nicholas Ray), she brusquely declared: ‘Those men never directed me’, giving credit only to her mother, her dialogue coach, and herself.  Her relationship to Ray is said to have broken down when he caught her in bed with his thirteen-year son, whom she later married (and divorced).  A bizarre, continued dissatisfaction with her mouth led to several bouts of plastic surgery that ultimately left her upper lip paralysed and her speech distorted.  Upon being told by doctors that she had cancer, she rejected the diagnosis and flew to England to star in a play.  Skimming the details of her private life, it’s a wonder that the Gloria Grahame movie hasn’t happened yet.

It’s possible that, were it not for the advent of film noir, her burgeoning career would have floundered as abruptly as Frances Farmer’s (and for perhaps not dissimilar reasons).  But the tangled, terrible world of noir offered up the kind of dames that Grahame’s singular screen presence was perfect for.  That unpredictable, intricate blend of intellect, sexuality, and frightened tenderness is hard to reconcile elsewhere, and certainly her career faded along with the genre, in the late 50s.  Over the coming days, I’ll be profiling a few of her most celebrated performances, in Crossfire, The Big Heat, and – strong contender for my all-time favourite – In a Lonely Place.

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For the Love of Film Noir

I’ve long wanted to set up a blog dedicated to all things cinematic, and have finally been prompted into doing so thanks to Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. Those bloggers extraordinaire are currently knee-deep in the ‘For the Love of Film Noir’ blogathon, dedicated to raising funds for the Film Noir Foundation in restoring and preserving classic films. Donations can be made here.

Film noir remains an indelible artistic influence on me. For a teenage nascent insomniac, BBC2’s programming of late-night noirs was a blessing. The Postman Always Rings Twice… I think that was the gateway. The other formative noirs from those years – caught once and never again – have fermented into a delicious, chiaroscuro blur of white-hot cigarette smoke in dark rooms, relentlessly rain-slicked streets, gigantic murderous shadows cast over the anonymous doomed. The stark aesthetics linger, even if the specific titles elude me. Even watched through bleary eyes that have to be at school in the morning, the impact is hard to shake, and to this day I’m seeking out new noirs.

Aside from the visuals, it was the women. Contemporary cinema at the time simply didn’t present me with women as fascinating as Gilda, or Bacall and Thelma Vickers, or poor unfulfilled Cora in her sad little roadside diner.  And while it may have not clicked that the fascinations they held were essentially being indicted and punished in the movies themselves – that I was perhaps being warned and chastised for finding them so fascinating – the fact remained that, for me, these women were the star attractions. The heroes, even. Even when they were as diabolical as Phyllis Dietrichson, or Veda in Mildred Pierce, a part of me willed them to succeed. Take the suckers for all they’re worth, girls.

They always failed of course, and were punished – either by death, or in the hell of being tamed and having to pretend to sincerely love Glenn Ford after all.  But it always struck me as rather a simplistic reading, to cry misogyny on these counts. Certainly, these resolutions made the films as a whole more palatable to conservative audiences. But these women had worked their magic, as far as I was concerned, and their moxie and defiance, their dissatisfaction with their lot, would surely outlive them.

Bacall was the first noir woman I loved. But her sardonic wit had it’s limits, and didn’t amount to much in the way of range or depth. Barbara Stanwyck made for an unimpeachable femme fatale, but she’s always – ultimately – a class act. Hayworth’s presence in noir continues to fascinate, but was always toying with and rubbing up against her star persona; she’s never just Gilda, but always also Hayworth.  The woman I’m writing about tomorrow, and whose signature performance tic has inspired the name of this blog, is – for me – the ultimate noir woman; the essence of dangerously unknowable femininity, forever slipping in and out of the dark.

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