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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame is the actress with the funny mouth that got funnier as her career went along. A mutilated face she displayed for Lee Marvin at the end of The Big Heat was grim precursor to the similarly distorted features Grahame would impose upon her own countenance via ill-advised plastic surgery meant to alleviate obsessive fears about a mouth she never was satisfied with. It took a car wreck to do to Montgomery Clift what Gloria did to herself on a doctor’s table. Her appearance varied wildly from one film to the next. She was a girl who couldn’t say no to the cosmetologist. Unpredictable on-set behavior (especially after an Oscar win) and a truly scandalous scandal (known only to insiders at the time) were enough to put brakes on what should have been a major run at stardom. That Academy Award came in 1953. By a decade's end, she’d dwindled to spotty work in features and prospects limited mainly to television. How she got there was a thing largely of her own making, but when Grahame was hot, she seemed unstoppable.

There was a mother to point the way, but this one was more benign than maternal forces of evil that beset Mary Miles Minter, Linda Darnell, and similar unfortunates. Stage work led to an MGM contract, the kind where you were looked at every six months with a pink slip in one hand and lousy parts in the other (here she is with Frank Sinatra in one of the better Metro gigs, It Happened In Brooklyn). The place was choked with girls who'd never make the grade, and it seemed for sure Gloria was among said ranks until a loan-out to Frank Capra put her by way of It’s A Wonderful Life, ironic that said first important part would be one for which she'd be best remembered. Slattern roles were adjudged best to exploit GG's talent, but no one expected her to be so adept as to score an Oscar nomination from one of them. That was Crossfire, and Dore Schary at RKO now owned her contract. Better parts and a shotgun marriage to Nicholas Ray led to a noir pairing with Humphrey Bogart that Ray would direct --- In A Lonely Place. That one took years to be discovered, but its reputation today is unassailable, and Grahame’s membership in various Halls Of Noir Fame are assured thanks to her having been so good in it. Home studio RKO was a bad place for an actress to be after Howard Hughes took charge, however, and second fiddle to Jane Russell’s lead opposite Robert Mitchum in Macao (Nicholas Ray would take over direction from Josef Von Sternberg) was not likely to yield further Academy nominations. A breakthrough of sorts came with The Greatest Show On Earth, where she was the elephant girl and got to lie down in sawdust with the brute’s foot poised just over her head, not something she would have likely done after the same year’s triumph in The Bad and The Beautiful. Grahame’s drippin’ Dixie accent goes quite beyond any aural encounter I’ve had in a lifetime dwelling amongst genuine southerners, but Academy voters have always been pushovers for such affectation, and Gloria’s performance took home Best Supporting Actress prize.

Her eccentricities would bloom fullest in front of make-up mirrors, where Gloria stuffed cotton balls under her upper lip because she didn’t think it was full enough. That sort of thing is common today when actresses routinely emerge from collagen treatments looking like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, but in 1953, everyone thought Grahame was nuts. Things got out of control when she showed up for The Cobweb with stitches around her mouth and a face beyond redemptive powers of airbrush and gauze. Suddenly, that Henry Jarrod make-up she’d worn following her coffee facial in The Big Heat didn’t look half-bad. Whispers around town spoke of a marital crack-up too hot for even Confidential magazine tongs to handle. Seems Nick Ray’s thirteen-year old son (by a previous marriage) showed up one afternoon after hitchhiking from military school and was promptly seduced by the subsequent Mrs. Ray. Nick caught the two dead to rights when he came home unexpectedly, giving both a heave-ho. He later got the kid to spill everything on tape so as to scotch any notions Gloria-play for alimony. It was well-guarded secret at the time, and only decades later would interviews reveal the truth. As for Ray's offspring, he’d attain sufficient majority by 1961 to become the husband of Gloria Grahame and father of two children with her. Hollywood stories don’t get much wilder than this.

Gloria couldn’t sing a lick, though she'd often pose on a bandstand. Here she’s belting out with help of a voice double in Song Of The Thin Man. The voice used in Oklahoma was her own, but songs had to be assembled from fragmentary recordings, seemingly one note at a time, before a decent track could be laid down. Television was a familiar grind for actresses no longer in feature demand, and Grahame did a lot of that. One vid job was an Outer Limits, which I dug out on DVD. That was always a show I struggled with on ABC in the sixties --- never was reception adequate --- said bleak association continuing to this day. Again, I slept through much of it, but woke briefly to note a young actor named Geoffrey Horne conversing with something that looked like The Blob, only this blob had a grotesque mouth (again the mouth!) and cultured diction besides. The whole thing left me in despair for The Outer Limits' future as a cult talisman, as this made Roger Corman’s early stuff at AIP look like The Magnificent Ambersons by comparison. Gloria Grahame’s part was minimal. You know groceries must have run low for her to have done it. Those years before her death in 1981 at 57 were largely spent on unworthy projects, though there were bright spots on stage and a few interesting made-for-TV movies. Gloria's mother observed toward the end that her daughter should have better applied efforts to acting. Maybe so, but she was great on occasions when opportunity and circumstance put her in right parts, and any resume that includes In A Lonely Place, The Bad and The Beautiful, and The Big Heat need not go begging.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story about Gloria Grahame! She always lit up the screen with her sex appeal!

How about doing a glamour starter on another 1940s cutie who had too short a career in the business: Dolores Moran?

11:07 AM  
Blogger Background Bennie said...

A somewhat obscure bit of trivia about Gloria is that she was once married to actor Stanley Clements, the ex-East Side Kid who assumed the role of the ringleader of the Bowery Boys ("Duke") after the departure of Leo Gorcey.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

I was wondering when you'd get to her.

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't know she had such hang-ups about her appearance. I always thought Gloria's mouth was her cute, defining feature. Too bad she didn't think so. When will women stop trying to conform to some bland idea of what's attractive, and learn to embrace what makes them unique? Isn't it better to stand out and be remembered, rather than looking like everyone else?

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. Overly plump upper lips freak me out, man.

1:01 AM  

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