Glorious Gloria

Glorious Gloria

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 18th 2018

Film noir icon Gloria Grahame, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award® for her brief but memorable role as a fluttery and flirty Southern belle wife of a screenwriter in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), endures as a fascinating object of renewed interest, thanks to the moody and moving new theatrical film about her sad last days in England, Los Angeles and New York before her tragic death (at age 57) from cancer, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Annette Bening, who is uncanny in her whispery-voiced and hauntingly alluring impersonation of a world-weary but defiant Grahame; Jamie Bell (strikingly heartfelt in a mature evolution from his poignant Smike of the Twilight Time title from 2002, Nicholas Nickleby), portraying British actor Peter Turner, whose 1986 memoir about his romance with the actress forms the film’s basis; and writer Matt Greenhalgh, noted for his real-life-inspired screenplays about musicians John Lennon (Nowhere Boy) and Ian Curtis (Control), have all been nominated for 2017 BAFTA Awards for their deeply moving and insightful work. If one needs reminding of the unique Grahame’s celluloid force beyond the aforementioned The Bad and the Beautiful or the beloved It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or the searing noirs Crossfire (1947, for which she nabbed her first Oscar® nomination) and In a Lonely Place (1950), Twilight Time offers two superb examples. Atop the pantheon of her resumé sits director Fritz Lang’s tough, terrific The Big Heat (1953), in which her gangster’s moll character of Debby Marsh takes the suffering she endures for helping hard-case detective Glenn Ford crack the DNA of a corrupt mob’s control of a Midwestern city – a disfiguring pot of scalding coffee thrown in her face – and channels it into righteous retribution at an awful cost. In his lively 1993 Alternate Oscars wherein he awards her 1953 Best Actress honors, film historian Danny Peary reflects: “Grahame was an underrated, one-of-a-kind actress with kittenish good looks and a somewhat dazed expression. She gave special meaning to such terms as fallen woman, tarnished lady and femme fatale, which she definitely is not in The Big Heat. Debby is one of her many sensuous, flirtatious women who are unhappy with their lives, and feel they are unworthy of the men they fall for. She’s too good to be stuck with the brutal Vince [Lee Marvin], but until she meets [Ford’s cop] Bannon she believes that he is typical of all men. When Vince disfigures her with hot coffee (Grahame plays much of the film with blistered-face makeup), she finally realizes she deserves better; ironically, at the same time, her disfigurement forces her to stop being vain. Now she fights for her self-esteem. And Grahame makes sure Debby emerges as someone we can truly admire.” 

A year before the real-life events of the Grahame/Turner romantic relationship depicted in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the veteran actress landed a part that showcased, like her memorable Ado Annie in the movie version of Oklahoma! (1955), her shamefully underutilized flair for comedy. Screenwriter/director Joan Micklin Silver’s delicate and tender film adaptation of Ann Beattie’s 1976 novel Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979) casts the one-time screen siren as Clara, the delusional, self-dramatizing mother who makes life complicated for the moony, romantically obsessed Charles (John Heard) as he’s striving to rekindle his relationship with ex-amour Laura (Mary Beth Hurt). As TCM.com essayist Jeff Stafford points out about her portrayal of a dazed and confused matriarch who arranges a Sunday dinner and forgets to prepare the meal, spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub while ignoring her second husband (Kenneth McMillan), and concocts faux-suicide attempts, “Gloria Grahame is…unpredictably funny and pathetic as Charles' mentally unbalanced mother, proving that underneath her screen image as a film noir femme fatale was a gifted comedienne struggling to break out.” To film historian David Shipman, “’40s floozie” Grahame “was so good that she eased herself out of supporting roles into star parts – though not many of much variation. She was usually cast as your friendly neighborhood nympho. She was both tough and vulnerable, a combination not rare but here at its most winning.” Life would deal her amazing career highs and erratic personal lows; according to Shipman: “Said Picturegoer: ‘If she were more synthetic, producers might not be so wary of her particular kind of explosive sex-appeal. But she’s very real, too real perhaps.’” As Grahame is remembered with burnished affection by the creators of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, so too is TT’s real, unvarnished fondness for the dazzling co-star of The Big Heat (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30898/THE-BIG-HEAT-1953-ENCORE-EDITION/) and Chilly Scenes of Winter on hi-def Blu-ray. Grahame will return on our label later in 2018.