Gloria Grahame: Film Noir’s Femme Fatale
by Stacia Jones.
Much of my information on Gloria Grahame comes from the excellent book Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio. I definitely recommend this book for fans of Grahame. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found online in several stores.
Grahame was a beautiful, troubled actress with a unique style that made her perfect for the part of the femme fatale, a role she most famously played in The Big Heat (1953). In that film she plays Debby, the sarcastic, childish, narcissistic girl of mob henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). After Vince scalds half of her face with boiling coffee, Debby seeks out revenge, nudged none-too-subtly by officer Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is also out for revenge.
According to Suicide Blonde, director Fritz Lang was a tyrant on the set. He always needed a scapegoat to pick on during filming, and Gloria was the scapegoat on The Big Heat. Jocelyn Brando recounted that she was treated poorly, too, at one point being forced to do about 25 takes on a single short scene where she feeds her husband Dave a piece of dripping steak; Lang was never satisfied that Brando was dripping the juice just right. The stressful work environment may have actually helped Grahame flourish as an actress, as her characterization was well-received by most critics of the day. Curcio says of her performance, “One would have to look back to Jacobean revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth century to find a character of her complexity and moral tone.” While it’s true she creates a layered performance with surprising depth, he does overstate her abilities by a fair margin.
During filming, Gloria won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in the previous year’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Gloria was so distracted due to the tough schedule and Lang’s grueling direction that she was hardly prepared for the honor. When she walked up to the stage to accept her Oscar, she stumbled badly. She said it was due to being blinded by the television lighting, while others said she was obviously drunk. Her make-up and hair were only half done and she was obviously flustered. In the days after her win there were stories that Grahame just didn’t appreciate the Oscar. One of the most repeated stories was that Grahame cared so little for the award that she had given the Oscar to her little boy to play with. In response, Gloria gave an interview with a movie magazine during a strenuous day of filming on The Big Heat. Between takes, she spoke with the interviewer, her face half-covered in the now-famous scar make-up. She explained that her son had decided the Oscar was a doll and that no mother would ever take away their son’s favorite toy. The rumors that she didn’t care about the Oscar upset her, she said. Physical pain eventually goes away, she explained, but emotional hurts linger.
Gloria is somewhat famous for her song “I Cain’t Say No” in “Oklahoma!” (1955), which is surprising as she was completely tone-deaf. Even the brief song she half-sings half-hums in The Big Heat is dubbed in. You can also see in that same scene the results of of her frequent plastic surgery. Grahame was never confident in her looks, and despite her lips being the one of her more well-known attributes, she had plastic surgery on her upper lip to reduce the deepness of the upper creases. The surgery was botched, though, resulting in her upper lip becoming stiff and unmovable. It was in reviews just after The Big Heat that Grahame became known as “the girl with the Novocaine lip”, something that would haunt her the rest of her life.
Because she didn’t want anyone to know about the botched plastic surgery, Grahame took to stuffing tissue in her upper lip, telling people it was to make her lips look fuller. She decided she’d rather be known for being eccentric than for ruining her lips, and for decades, people believed the “Novocaine lip” was entirely due to her strange use of tissues.
Grahame was a study in contradictions. She was both genuine and nice, while at the same time being insecure and difficult. Her personal life was a PR disaster. Gloria was often featured in gossip columns due to several publicly turbulent relationships. In 1952 she divorced from husband Nicholas Ray, and word of an affair she’d had with his then 13-year-old son Anthony Ray leaked into gossip columns. (She later married her stepson Anthony when he was in his mid-20s, about 10 years after they first met.) Her erratic behavior spilled over into her acting as well. Just two years after “The Big Heat”, patience with Gloria’s antics wore out.
Many were surprised when Gloria was cast as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! (1955). Director Fred Zinneman said he had always wanted Gloria for the role, and he was willing to do almost anything to make it happen. Gloria herself said she didn’t want the role because she simply could not sing. Others, however, report Grahame reading over the script for the film before casting began, making it very possible that she was deliberately trying for the role.
Never secure with her looks or her acting ability, the added stress of attempting to sing in a musical made Grahame extremely difficult to deal with. Her singing was almost useless, and Zinneman insisted everyone in the film do their own singing. Gloria was forced to sing one or two notes at a time and leave it to the music editors to piece it together. The result is a choppy version of “I Cain’t Say No” where the lyrics are spoken more than sung.
By now married to Cy Howard, Grahame spent a lot of time on the phone with him while he told her how to play each scene. Filming was held up and she was often literally dragged from the phone to the stage.
Gloria often refused to learn her blocking properly. Some claim this was a sort of passive-aggressive attempt on her part to do things the way she wanted, although others close to Grahame say it was borne from insecurity and near-panic. During Oklahoma!, however, this problem with blocking turned into routine upstaging where she stepped on other actor’s feet, kicked and shoved others out of the scene, and deliberately did her takes differently each time to throw the other actors off.
SELECTED MOVIES FEATURING GLORIA GRAHAME