Iconic Figuration

Beginning this week at London’s BFI Southbank is an intriguing six-week season of the films of Gloria Grahame, a star of Hollywood’s golden age. It coincides with this week’s release of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, a new film that covers an ageing Grahame’s real-life relationship with Peter Turner, a young, unknown actor from the northwest of England. With Grahame played by Annette Bening, it’s an apt casting choice; when Bening starred in her Oscar-nominated 1990 breakthrough The Grifters, she studied Grahame’s work to inhabit her role of a sizzling seductress.

While never a major star in the league of, say, Lauren Bacall, Grahame burned brightly during the 1950s. She excelled playing the femme fatale, damaged women who frequently manipulated men to nefarious ends. She won an Oscar nomination for Crossfire (1947), starring opposite Robert Mitchum as a witness to a murder. Five years later, she claimed the Academy Award for the classic Kirk Douglas Hollywood-set drama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

Two films in the BFI season – which is aptly enough subtitled Good at Being Bad – are given extended runs: Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The first saw her team up with blossoming director Ray, whom she was married to at the time, to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in a brilliantly-hewn tale of a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murder and the neighbour who gives him a false alibi.

In the case of Lang’s film, this hardboiled tale of corruption and redemption that provided Grahame with the most iconic scene on her career, involving Lee Marvin and a pot of coffee. Curiously, it was one of two films she made with the director in the same year alongside Human Desire, in which she played an unfaithful woman trapped in an ugly marriage with a violent husband (played by Broderick Crawford).

Off screen, her personal life was just as lively – she had a scandalous affair with Nicholas Ray’s 13 year-old son Tony, who later became her fourth husband. But there was more to her than lurid headlines or femme fatale roles. As Ado Annie in Fred Zinnemann’s movie musical of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955), she showed a lighter side – even if her rendition of the classic tune I Cain’t Say No! feels like a comic riposte to her bad girl image.

Good At Being Bad: The Films Of Gloria Grahame runs in the BFI Southbank until December 30. For more details, visit: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk.

James Mottram

1. Gloria Grahame.