A misconception about Gloria Grahame (1923–81) is reiterated whenever her career is assessed. Because the mercurial star’s characters, especially in her eight film noirs, oozed insolence, duplicity, and the promise of intricate thrills, while satisfying their own sadomasochistic needs, it’s generally assumed she epitomized the femme fatale.
Proponents of this fallacy don’t reckon with the absence of malice in Grahame’s otherwise unreadable persona. Only in Human Desire (1954; screening September 4 and 5) of the seven noirs screening in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Gloria Grahame: Blonde Ambition” best-of retrospective does she play a seductress with murder in mind. Her Vicki in Fritz Lang’s sordid remake of Jean Renoir’s 1938 La Bête Humaine is wed to a brutal lush (Broderick Crawford) who killed his boss after she slept with him to secure the big lunk’s railroad job. She starts an affair with an engineer, Jeff (Glenn Ford), hoping he’ll widow her. As shrill and tawdry as Vicki is, audiences may respond sympathetically to her sense of entrapment and her possible love for Jeff. She conjures Renoir’s exculpatory rationale, “Everyone has [her] reasons.”
The same applies to Grahame’s initially irrepressible Debby in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953; September 5 and 7). A mirror-gazing narcissist and materialistic moll classier than the self-admiring tease Grahame played in her 1944 debut Blonde Fever, Debby loses her raison d’être when her sadistic mob lieutenant boyfriend (Lee Marvin) — enraged by her fraternizing with vigilante ex-cop, Bannion (Ford) — scalds her face. Bannion heartlessly enlists her as an avenging angel to help destroy the syndicate that murdered his wife. Crucially, Debby doesn’t manipulate a man to kill for her, in classic femme fatale style, but is herself manipulated.
Grahame never carried a film, but she’s now regarded as one of mid-century Hollywood’s greatest actresses, sublime as an insinuator and dissembler — and the sexiest of eyebrow-raisers. She wasn’t as indestructible as Barbara Stanwyck, as fierce as Susan Hayward; Joan Bennett, in her Lang noirs, was more spiderous. Yet Grahame’s prime work, consistent in its depiction of a woman punished for being sexually active in oppressively authoritarian post-war America, is more resonant now than that of “love goddesses” like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
She started out playing insouciant hotties, but the image soured within It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), her flirty Violet rematerializing as the hysterical whore in George Bailey’s nightmare. Violet augured Grahame’s Oscar-nominated performance in Crossfire (1947, September 4–7). She played Ginny, a hooker (in all but name), so sick of being mauled she’s abashed by a young soldier’s courtliness; Ginny’s self-lacerating disgust echoes the anti-Semitic hate that triggers the claustrophobic noir’s procedural. Her relationship with the weirdo (Paul Kelly) who shows up at her apartment is one of noir’s strangest — is he her husband, an ex-boyfriend, her pimp, or a besotted john? Their interaction introduced the aura of unfathomability that surrounded Grahame in her best movies. It was a cloak, lightly worn, that concealed her characters’ feelings and immediate motives, and under which vicious deeds would be set in motion. Most of these women act from exigency, as victims of fate (or socio-sexual slavery) struggling to survive, not as the femmes fatales to whom feminist critics have ascribed anti-patriarchal agency. (An exception is Grahame’s sadomasochistic sociopath in Sudden Fear, from 1952, omitted from FSLC’s survey.)
Nicholas Ray, who’d become Grahame’s second husband, emphasized that unknowability when he cast her as the elusive singer who all but destroys her mentor (Maureen O’Hara) in the implicitly sapphic A Woman’s Secret (1949, September 5 and 8). It was the first film in which a Grahame character suggested that her absences would be spent feverishly fucking someone on the sly. It became a hallmark, inducing sexual jealously, via Ray’s towering In a Lonely Place (1950, September 4 and 7), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, September 4–7), The Big Heat, The Good Die Young (1954), Human Desire, The Naked Alibi (1954, September 6), and Not as a Stranger (1954). An irony that complicates a feminist reading of Grahame’s provocatrices is their yearning — of Ginny, Debby, Vicki, Laurel, and Naked Alibi‘s deceptively hard-boiled nightclub entertainer Marianna — for dependency on a strong and/or decent man. Laurel, Mary, and Marianna try to create surrogate families: Mary and Marianna with other people’s kids; Laurel with her screenwriter lover (Humphrey Bogart) and his pals.
Grahame’s ailing marriage to Ray ended when he discovered, in 1951, that she had de-virginized his then-13-year-old-son, Tony, who nine years later would become her fourth husband. All her husbands allegedly hit her, a tragedy that forges an ineradicable — if tendentious — connection to her portrayals of abused women. If Laurel, Debby, and Vicki can’t escape domestic violence, her characters in Sudden Fear, Naked Alibi, and Man on a Tightrope (1953) are gratified by it.
It’s hard not to conclude Grahame was in some ways invested in the misogynistic violence enacted in her films, or instigated some of it in rehearsals. Whether she opened herself to illustrating abuse on camera with psychodramatic intent, her movies offer a jaundiced view of sexual politics in the postwar and Eisenhower years. In Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and The Cobweb (1955, September 6–8), she played radically different neurotic wives; her incarnation of the first, a Southern belle dazzled by Tinseltown, brought her an Oscar.
The Tony Ray scandal and Grahame’s misbehavior on the set of Oklahoma! (1955, September 6) made her a pariah in Hollywood, though she later enjoyed stage success in Britain. Her 1970s comeback in mostly sleazy horror movies wasn’t stellar, but she sounded a last hurrah for incitement in Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979, September 8). Though suicidal, Grahame’s “Ma” fluffs her hair with mock coyness, exactly as did It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Violet, and wantonly kisses her son’s best friend on the mouth, as her Blonde Fever hotel maid did to her tantalized married boss 35 years earlier. She continues to provoke from beyond the grave.
Gloria Grahame: Blonde Ambition
Film Society of Lincoln Center