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.