WEIRDLAND: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverspool, Gloria Grahame's revelatory career

Monday, June 05, 2017

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverspool, Gloria Grahame's revelatory career

My memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, when first published in 1986, attracted exciting interests from the film world. My literary agent, the late Deborah Rogers, gave me some worldly advice, “Please don’t get carried away by the film world. It can go awfully wrong. Just continue to write.” Her words still ring in my ears as, from book to screen, four producers, seven screenplays, and three directors later, mine was a journey down a long and very winding road. The book was first optioned by a Hollywood studio in 1986, but when the studio head was ousted and a new one put in place, the project was dropped. It was then taken up by a British production company who were at the point of having it made but, at the last minute, the project went into free-fall and interest in it waned. It was only when Barbara Broccoli rescued the project from oblivion that things started to look up. Her vision and passion revitalised my enthusiasm towards a film being made but even so, nothing could prepare for the challenges ahead. The film industry was uncertain, financing was hard to get, and it was clear we would need to attract the interest from a Hollywood star to play the central character of Gloria Grahame.

Annette Bening bumped into Barbara at a film event. She’d read my book twenty years earlier and was interested in reading a script. Suddenly all systems were go. Colin Vaines joined Barbara as producer and Matt Greenhalgh was commissioned to write a new script. Annette Bening read it and liked it, and she agreed to star in the film. It took a further two years to place a director. In 2014 Paul McGuigan decided it was a film for him. Yet there were more obstacles and challenges. Schedules and availabilities were tricky to match, finances wobbled, and, once again, to me, it seemed it might all fall apart. But Hollywood threw in a happy ending. ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’, starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, and Vanessa Redgrave, went into production in June 2016 and is scheduled for release in the autumn of 2017. I’ve now seen an early cut of the film, which I liked, and am looking forward to seeing the final result. Has there been much heartache along the way? Oh yes. I’ve most certainly had to learn to be patient, philosophical, and to try to practice being detached. There are some differences with the film from the book but, surprisingly, not many. Being invited onto the set at Pinewood was overwhelming, and I was so very impressed by the entire film crew and their incredible work. Interest in reading Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has undoubtedly increased and at the end of the day Barbara Broccoli has delivered the film of my book that she first promised me she’d make. It doesn’t get any better than that. Source: www.signature-reads.com

Directed by BAFTA nominee Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin), FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL is based on the acclaimed memoir by British actor Peter Turner and follows the playful but passionate relationship between Turner (Jamie Bell) and the eccentric Academy Award® winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Turner being the one person she allows herself to turn to for comfort and strength. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control. The book focuses on Grahame turning to Turner for support when she reached the terminal stage of cancer in 1981. Peter Turner: "Gloria Grahame won an Oscar for her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful. Gloria worked in films alongside some of Hollywood’s legendary stars; Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford; and now, I’ve witnessed her take her rightful place among them. The passing of years has also given me more time to appreciate Gloria the woman herself rather than Gloria the film star, and to realize the privilege I was handed to have journeyed with her through several years of her life. Thinking back on the relationship we shared, I’ve laughed out loud at her knowing sense of humour and sighed at the memory of her blank and immovable stubbornness. And, oh yes indeed, I remember her irresistible vulnerability. But, above all, what has become so apparent to me now, which wasn’t to me then, is how misunderstood Gloria was, and how brave she had been in dealing with the barrage of falsehoods and inaccuracies about her from her turbulent days in Hollywood. No matter what had happened to Gloria in life, or would happen, she always found the courage to carry on."

In his book Film Noir: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons (2006), Michael Stephens opines, "Gloria Grahame's performance as Vicki Buckley is masterful, Human Desire's saving grace. Vicki is the archetypal femme fatale, sadistic and masochistic at once. Grahame spends much of the film lounging around in lingerie, and Lang's camera seems to linger on her like an irresistible erotic angel of death. It is Gloria Grahame's finest performance." Fritz Lang brilliantly uses the train’s inexorable passage and the determinism of the rails that brook no turning back or detour: fate is laid out in hard steel, and the switches and way-lays are beyond the driver’s control – all he can do is slow or speed his progress along – and even then he has a schedule to stick to. Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), a returning Korean war vet is shown as the driver in fast cuts to the cabin of the speeding locomotive. 

Enter the erotic Gloria Grahame, married to an insanely jealous older man, whom she does not love. But can she love any man? She lies but she doesn’t lie, she tells the truth but not the whole truth, and not all at once. Lang and his cameraman, Burnett Guffey, are unrelenting in their unblinking gaze on the dark underside of modern American life. Lang does not flinch from showing the ugliness and malevolence in a world brightly lit and without visible shadows. 

Francois Truffaut said of Gloria Grahame in 1952 that 'she was the only American actress who was a real person on the screen.' She was also distinctly 'gifted at projecting ambivalence.' In a 2015 article of The New York Village Voice about a retrospective of her films shown at the Lincoln Centre, Graham Fuller wrote that she ‘was one of the greatest actresses of mid-twentieth-century Hollywood’. Gloria Grahame worked for some of the great film directors like Edward Dmytryk, Vincent Minnelli, Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang, and the impressive list goes on. She made over forty films including It’s a Wonderful Life – in which she played Violet Bick; Crossfire – which she said was her favourite and for which she was nominated for her first Academy Award; A Woman’s Secret, In a Lonely Place, Sudden Fear, The Bad and the Beautiful – for which she won an Academy Award; The Big Heat, Human Desire, Naked Alibi, The Cobweb, Not as a Stranger, and Oklahoma! – which she just hated.

Gloria also hated interviews because she didn't feel worthy of the attention. She loved the acting process but didn't care at all for the celebrity that accompanied it, especially during her fourth marriage, when so much of the attention focused on her was negative. Gloria's mother Jean Grahame opined her daughter could have been as famous as "That nice girl [Marilyn Monroe] who had the affair with the President. Gloria would never apply herself properly. She’d never talk to the columnists. I used to get them on the phone going crazy. “That girl’s going to ruin her career if she won’t talk to me,” they used to say. But Gloria would never talk. She always hated gossip. And she’d never dress herself properly. When we used to go over to Zsa Zsa’s house, her mother would say, “Oh that Gloria. She could make something of herself. If she’d only fix herself up a bit.” But that’s Gloria. She’s impossible. She didn’t even wear a new dress when she won an Oscar! She just threw on a mink. Gloria likes to do things her way.’"

Gloria Grahame is excellent in "Sudden Fear" (1952). If she had not been Oscar-nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful this same year, she almost certainly would have been nominated for Sudden Fear. She is just right playing a woman glamourous and generous on the outside but petty and vindictive inside. Her sensuality makes Irene a formidable challenge to Myra in terms of keeping Lester's attention, and the manner in which she so thinly disguises Irene's baser instincts thrusts the plot forward forcefully. In a magazine feature titled "The Role I Liked Best..." Gloria indicated that Irene was her favorite part. "As Irene Neves, a sort of junior-size Lady Macbeth, I was as changeable as March weather and often twice as nasty." Gloria had always wanted to play Lady Macbeth (and finally did, onstage, in 1979), and used Shakespeare's character as her main motivation.

During the filming of "The Big Heat", Gloria Grahame 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 Lang’s grueling schedule that she was hardly prepared. 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. 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. She explained that her son had decided the Oscar was a doll and his favorite toy. Another rumor was she carried a suitcase full of “every Technicolour pill you could dream of.” It didn’t take long for Grahame to discover that she’d been blackballed for her uncooperative character. Everyone knew of her behavior on the set of “Oklahoma!”, and despite another Academy Award nomination for her performance as Ado Annie, her career was effectively over. When later asked about having to play the game in Hollywood, she replied, “I don’t know what the game is. I don’t think I ever understood Hollywood.”

Gloria Grahame's third husband, Cy Howard, attempted to gain sole custody of the couple's daughter, Marianna. Howard claimed Grahame was an unfit mother, and the two fought over custody of Marianna for years. The stress of the scandal, her waning career and her custody battle with Howard took its toll on Grahame and she had a nervous breakdown. She later underwent electroshock therapy in 1964. Despite the surrounding scandal, Grahame's marriage to Anthony Ray was her longest lasting union. They would later divorce in May 1974.

Gloria Grahame was one of a kind in Hollywood. She had a terrible way of appearing to be totally absent from anywhere, which is probably the very thing that made her a star in the films; she put a peculiar kind of distance between her and what was happening at the moment. This disengaged quality about her in films is what made her unique. There was a kind of loneliness about Gloria, and in a way, her greatest acting moments were lonely moments. She had a combination of looks, talent and personality that was, and remains, unique. Gloria never became a major star, but even as a "major minor" star, her career is perhaps more fascinating and revelatory than many of the rather homogenous stars that Hollywood produced during the same era. She was an underused and underrated actress even during her prime. She was wrong when she so often claimed that she was unworthy of attention from the media or from fervent fans; Gloria Grahame was, is, and always will be a Hollywood legend.  "Gloria Grahame: Bad Girl of Film Noir"  (2011) by Robert J. Lentz

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