Bright Lights Film Journal

Fatal Instincts: The Dangerous Pout of Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame was born on this day, November 28, 1923, in Los Angeles. We tip our hat to this incomparable star by reposting Dan Callahan’s pithy profile of “the girl with the novocaine lip” – and so much more.

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Say her name out loud, and it even sounds like her: Gloria Grahame, fancy and earthy at once, tart, ungraspable. She generally makes her entrance on-screen accompanied by a wail of hot jazz, eating candy, applying lipstick to that puffy mouth, flipping her dirty hair and cheap hoop earrings, extending her toned legs so we can see her shapely feet tied up in ankle-strap high heels.

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Once, when I was drunk in an attic in New Jersey, I flipped on the television, and there was Gloria Grahame in something called Naked Alibi (1954), lip-synching to a song and gyrating obscenely in a sleazy club, a taunting, creepy image that kept me from sleep and kept me watching as she played out another brutal film noir plot, raising her eyebrows and goading the men around her to violence, rough sex, and ruin. Most of Grahame’s films have lurid titles: Blonde Fever (1944), Roughshod (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful, Sudden Fear (both 1952), The Good Die Young (1954), Blood and Lace (1970), and, my personal favorite, Mama’s Dirty Girls (1974). Say her name out loud, and it even sounds like her: Gloria Grahame, fancy and earthy at once, tart, ungraspable. She generally makes her entrance on-screen accompanied by a wail of hot jazz, eating candy, applying lipstick to that puffy mouth, flipping her dirty hair and cheap hoop earrings, extending her toned legs so we can see her shapely feet tied up in ankle-strap high heels. Her perversity knows no limits on-screen; in life, she was capable of sleeping with the 13-year-old son of her second husband, Nicholas Ray (she later married this stepson and bore him sons). She could never deny her impulses, and her wantonness made and then destroyed an exciting career in movies.

Grahame lives on the edges of most of her films, too disturbing an image, too turbulent a consciousness to ever really play a lead role. She could look severe, even plain, when she wasn’t overly made up for gaudy seduction. Almost always, she played tramps of some sort, but she was enough of an actress to make them very different kinds of tramps, and her filmography offers a sort of strumpet cornucopia. She is capable of turning up in anything, even It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where she’s the flip side of the film’s Donna Reed sweetheart: Violet Bick (how’s that for a mean/sexy name?), boy crazy in a black satin dress, doing the Charleston with older men at a dance. Grahame gives Violet a comic sort of speed and cluelessness, but when we see what would have happened if Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey had never been born, we catch a glimpse of Violet as a wrecked, angry whore being dragged to a paddy wagon, screaming that she knows important people. It’s possible to imagine a whole film about Violet Bick, but it wouldn’t have been made in 1946, and it might make even today’s sexually jaded art film audience flinch.

Apparently Grahame was directly descended from the Plantagenet line of English kings (you can almost hear her say, “Oh yeah?” at that bit of info), and she was raised by an actress mother who coached her and stood by her side. She started on stage as a little girl, and early on a reviewer noted that she made “a flamboyant and amusing floozy.” Louis B. Mayer, of all people, discovered her, signed her to MGM, and even gave her her name. She did bits and vamps, including Violet Bick, and came to prominence with a small but incendiary performance in Crossfire (above, 1947), which earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. There’s a saxophone blast as she appears in close-up, a kittenish dance hall girl who seems warm and hard by turns. What does she do when she’s not dancing? “I live,” she spits out, contemptuously. Grahame gradually peels away the layers of this girl’s mask, and underneath, there’s an ugly, all-pervasive B-girl bitterness that had seldom if ever been seen on-screen before.

She met Nicholas Ray on A Woman’s Secret (1948), a confused melodrama chiefly notable for Grahame’s chaotic portrait of a kook with come-hither eyes. After they married, Ray gave her a rare lead in In a Lonely Place (1949), a great, upsetting film about Hollywood, uncontrollable male anger, and female passivity. When we first see Grahame, she looks surprisingly elegant and put-together in short blond hair, black coat, and white scarf. In her second scene at a police station, she’s wry and amused, almost Myrna Loy-ish, and this makes Humphrey Bogart’s screenwriter think she’s “a good guy.” But we start to see other sides of her Laurel that he isn’t privy to. A failed actress, she keeps alluding to a checkered past; the more we learn about her, the more enigmatic she seems. As Bogart takes center stage with his displays of temper, Grahame pulls back and gets distant, as if she doesn’t want to reveal too much about herself. At the end, when she recites a love poem to a retreating Bogie, Grahame expresses the absence of love just as piercingly as Dietrich, Anna Karina, and all other actresses who have disappointed their directors in life, if not on the screen.

Grahame made her biggest impact in 1952, stealing varied films. In Josef von Sternberg’s Macao, she floats through the nonsensical plot looking so bored that her boredom begins to haunt the whole movie. Her mind is obviously on something else, and the camera devours her “I have a secret” hints behind her masklike face. She has no facial mobility here, and Robert Mitchum correctly compares her to a sphinx. During her last scene, she does a dead-on Dietrich impersonation just for fun, taking a wonky pause between words for no real reason, narrowing her eyes, and then flicking a cigarette for emphasis. Grahame shows up in the last half-hour of Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful as Rosemary Lee, the decorous blond sexpot wife of a writer (Dick Powell). Rosemary is manipulative but in a charming way, and she obviously loves constant and inventive sex with her husband. Grahame makes her so lightweight and daffy, so likable, that her sudden death off-screen comes as a shock, and makes it clear that Rosemary, like Grahame herself, follows her most perverse instincts right into death and disaster. The part won her a Supporting Actress Oscar, which was generally taken as an award for all four of her 1952 efforts.

The Joan Crawford vehicle Sudden Fear provides Grahame with as vivid a tramp role as she would ever play, a total pervert/wacko who goads Jack Palance into violence because it turns her on. She’s sloppy here, greasy-looking, lounging around in pajamas. Her voice comes right from her nose, as it always does: it’s the voice of a bespectacled secretary, or even a cartoon nerd, coming out of a druggy, nymphomaniacal dish, and the contrast between her looks and her voice makes a brazen, queasy impression. Turning on a dime, she played a redheaded elephant girl in Cecil B. DeMille’s vibrantly corny Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth. The script has her say she doesn’t “rate” a good guy like Charlton Heston because of her sluttish past, and insists she has a heart of gold (she’s even named Angel). But Grahame begs to differ, splashing the role with ill-temper and coming most alive when she offers her ass to Heston and cracks, “You wanna bite somebody? Well pick yer spot!”

Her DeMille Angel is menaced by her jealous lover, who threatens her face as she writhes under an elephant’s massive foot, and this threat to her looks was amplified in what has to be Grahame’s best film and most touching, complete performance, Fritz Lang’s crime thriller The Big Heat (right, 1953). She turns up midway through as Debby, a playful, braying gangster’s moll who seeks to amuse everyone around her. Debby tries to ignore her uncertain role in the criminal underworld by drinking a lot and constantly shopping, which helps her get through her days, but this is the one Grahame woman who obviously has a conscience, even moral yearnings, under her fluffy exterior. She habitually gazes into mirrors, loving the way she looks, which makes that famous scene where Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee in her face so hard to watch. After he burns her with it off-screen, we see Debby moving around a table frantically, her hair dripping wet, her hands shaking and not daring to touch her face, and Grahame throws her body around the space like a hysterical child, making shrill, terrible sounds, and all too clearly communicating, “This can’t be happening! That didn’t just happen!”

Grahame was as obsessed with her looks as Debby. She had numerous operations to make her chin smaller and put a cleft in it, and underwent so much plastic surgery on her thin upper lip that it became permanently paralyzed; to make matters stranger, she started stuffing the stiff upper lip with tissue or cotton to make it bigger, so that some of her leading men wound up with wet paper in their mouths after a kiss. This fixation on her face is the foundation of her most powerful scenes in The Big Heat, when the once-hedonistic, now-scarred Debby is forced to reflect on her life and her role in Marvin’s crime syndicate. She tries to make her usual excuses at first: “Guess a scar isn’t so bad,” she says. But this is the last time Debby will fool herself. She sets about putting things right, and gets her revenge on Marvin by throwing coffee in his face. When she takes off her bandages, the scarred Grahame looks like a monster in a horror movie, something from the Black Lagoon, but inside she’s finally whole and righteous. Grahame movingly makes a case for Debby, and all the girls like Debby, with the size of her conception and the depth of her compassion, which is informed by her own outsized demons.

On-screen and in life, Grahame was always deliberately provoking and dealing with the violence of male jealousy, never more so than in her follow-up film with Lang, Human Desire. This is the first movie where she completely pulls back from the camera and doesn’t even seem to have the refuge of her own secret thoughts, as she did in Macao; she’s at the mercy of the darkest human impulses, and she seems to be watching herself play the role of Vicki, another unknowable tramp, from a vast distance. She’s zombie-like here, as if the load of her sick desires has become too much for her to handle. “He’s done things to me I can’t even talk about,” she tells Glenn Ford, of her vicious husband, Broderick Crawford. This is an abused woman she’s playing, and also a femme fatale, but it’s not as simple as that. Her unspecific, transient, goading quality invites physical abuse, and it somehow makes her the dominant partner. Tales of Vicki’s hard past cannot begin to explain the moist, unaccountable woman we see; Grahame transfixes Lang’s often pedestrian film by retreating into some kind of existential no man’s land, from which she would not return.

She took her usual punishment in a few other movies, getting smacked and liking it in Elia Kazan’s embarrassing anti-Communist circus movie Man on a Tightrope (1953), then getting dunked in a bathtub in The Good Die Young. In Minnelli’s The Cobweb (right, 1955), Grahame is broader, fleshier, messier, shiny-faced, and volatile, working up a head of angry steam with husband Richard Widmark. She has access to big emotions, but her control over them has become erratic, and audiences began to express their disapproval at her increasingly bizarre appearance and eccentric, mush-mouthed style. As Ado Annie in Fred Zinnemann’s deadly film of Oklahoma! (1955), Grahame squints her way through her crude country bumpkin role and uncomfortably squeezes out two songs, a noir mainstay helplessly adrift in musical comedy land. She then gave a Stanley Kramer corpse, Not as a Stranger (1955), some sultry mouth to mouth. Everything about her here seems smudged, sexual and degraded; she’s less an actress in this film than a vampirish emblem of spent depravity. After that, she disappeared into an embattled third marriage to comedy writer Cy Howard, brawling with him all over Europe and even pulling a gun on him at one point, as if she saw her own life in strictly noir terms.

Before the fifties ended, she had one more chance on-screen, in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), where she tries to be a rather prim woman who’s sadomasochistically drawn to Robert Ryan’s murderer. Her dialogue comes out in a stilted way, but nothing can take away from the quicksilver instability in her eyes, or the moment when her mousy character reveals that she’s wearing a black lace bra. That was her swan song, though she did make appearances on television all through the sixties and seventies, playing a lot of aging, oddball actresses from the noir and even the silent film era. She had a mental breakdown in the mid-sixties, which resulted in confinement and shock treatments, and there were drawn-out custody battles with her various husbands over various children. Grahame often seemed dizzy and out-of-it to the people she knew, but some friends believed she was “dumb like a fox,” using a ditzy image to keep some control over her own wayward life and everyone in it.

Her film career continued in exploitation and horror features, with one or two exceptions like Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), a psychobabble-laden seventies love story where she plays John Heard’s unstable mother, jolting the film alive with flashes of hostile willfulness. The same year, she was another weird mother in a heist film called A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square, and seemed like a ghost of herself, a middle-aged woman with a hard face, desperately disco dancing at a club. In Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), she’s treated as little more than an extra, wildly signaling for us to look at her as the camera keeps backing away. On his DVD commentary track, Demme muses, “There’s the fabulous Gloria Grahame . . . what an honor to have her in our movie.” If he was so honored, he might have given her a role to play. As it is, she has exactly three words of dialogue; it was her ultimate disappearing act.

Ill with breast cancer in the last years of her life, Grahame reversed her history of small parts in big movies by taking large theater roles on small regional stages. In the seventies, she played Amanda Wingfield, a carnal Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (imagine that!), Amanda in Private Lives, and even Lady Macbeth, where her sleepwalking scene is said to have been deeply scary. Obstinate to the end, she refused to tell anyone about her disease, and suffered a painful death when a doctor ineptly drained fluids from her stomach: peritonitis set in, and she died a few agonizing days later. Her self-absorption made for a disastrous life, certainly, but that’s to be expected. Gloria Grahame lived on the sidelines of her films because it was there that she could cause the most trouble; she might appear in any movie, young and sullen, aged and insistent, under a pound of make-up or plain-faced, fucking the pain away, putting out a cigarette in someone’s eye, giggling for no reason. She’s inescapable, a disruptive force, and when I hear her in my head, she seems to say, “C’mon, you know you want to . . .”