I’m not sure what film marked my introduction to the classic Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, but I remember the emotions that bubbled up within me watching her for the first time: a blend of admiration, awe, and lust. Grahame is the subject of the biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (played by Annette Bening), which tracks her final years far from the glow of the Hollywood spotlight. The film, based on a memoir by Peter Turner (played by Jamie Bell in the film), hones in on the relationship between the faded actress brimming with neuroses and the far younger would-be actor, Turner.
Bening is able to capture the ragged desperation and sultriness Grahame exhibited both in her work and her life. Even then, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is too airless and improperly structured to be a worthwhile window into a woman as complicated as Grahame. The film is far too interested in making Turner the center of this story. Grahame appeared in a lot of well-known classic Hollywood fare including the holiday staple It’s a Wonderful Life and her Oscar-winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful. But those films don’t represent the height of her prowess as an actress. Here are five films that seared Grahame into the imagination of Americans during the mid-20th century.
The Big Heat (1953)
With the Fritz Lang–helmed noir, The Big Heat, Gloria Grahame cemented herself as the quintessential femme fatale, an archetype she brought humanity and elegant vulgarity to throughout her career. The Big Heat may center on Glenn Ford as a grimly determined detective aiming to take down the mob boss responsible for his wife’s murder. But it is Grahame as the minx girlfriend of the boss’s hotheaded second-in-command, Vince (a terrifying Lee Marvin), who truly shines. As Debby Marsh, Grahame adroitly blends the traits that have made femme fatales iconic — an unabashed sexiness undercut by insolence, a sharp tongue able to handle any highly stylized dialogue that comes her way, a hardness that suggests a life well-lived and truly fought for, and an emotional intelligence with just enough vulnerability to make the character rise above being merely an eye-catching archetype. What makes Grahame’s performance one of the most memorable classic performances within noir is how she handles Debby’s turn from a mob moll to an anti-heroine on a path of vengeance. After a disfiguring act of violence involving a scalding pot of coffee, Debby uses her knowledge and cunning to aid Ford’s detective and get revenge. Here, Grahame brings Debby’s blend of lightning-bright cunning and vulnerability to the surface, creating a performance that becomes a stunning meditation on female anger and desire.
Sudden Fear (1952)
Grahame — an actress adept at making a lie sound like a soul-baring truth — is perfect for this Joan Crawford vehicle, brimming with double crosses and emotional intrigue. The film centers on Myra Hudson (Crawford), a wealthy playwright whose fairy-tale marriage to Lester (Jack Palance) reveals itself to be a nightmare. Grahame plays Irene Neves, Lester’s devious ex he reconnects with in order to plan Myra’s murder and claim her fortune. Irene is greedy, vindictive, lustful, and brazenly manipulative. Early in the film, there’s a remarkable scene of Lester forcing himself into her apartment after she crashes his post-honeymoon party. The scene is perverse yet entrancing thanks to the way Grahame plays Irene as a woman for whom sex and violence are intrinsically linked. Grahame is unafraid to fully lean into the darkness of the character while never forgetting that this yearning comes from a human place.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
One reason I have always been drawn to noir during its classic 1940s–50s period is that no performance is wasted. Even minor characters bristle with life and style in ways that suggest they could capably carry a film on their own. In Odds Against Tomorrow, an incisive noir that grapples with race, produced and starring Harry Belafonte, Grahame plays one such role. As Helen, the lustful and curious neighbor making moves on Robert Ryan’s loathsome bank robber, her appearance may be brief, but it’s striking and humane, adding welcome texture to the film. I’ve put Odds Against Tomorrow on the list rather than some of Grahame’s more well-known films because it encapsulates one of the qualities that makes her such an intriguing actress: the way she looks at a man. Grahame reportedly once said, “It wasn’t the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it.” That holds true in her interactions with Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow. Few actors portray naked desire with such authenticity and panache. Grahame never condescended to the occasional perversity and lustfulness of her characters, treating these qualities as important aspects of their femininity.
Directed by the great Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire is an intriguing noir that interrogates anti-Semitism through the investigation of a brutal murder that leads a detective into a close-knit community of demobilized soldiers. Grahame plays Ginny, a dancer (although it’s implied she’s a sex worker) and possible witness to the crime. A lesser actress would get lost among heavyweights like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, but Grahame (a classically trained actress who always cared deeply about her craft) makes a meal out of the few scenes she’s in. She plays Ginny as a woman refusing to bend to the world in ways expected of her.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The Nicholas Ray–helmed film In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart, is one of my greatest obsessions. It’s a noir that interrogates the poisonous ways the violence of men warps lives, a moving, doomed romance, and a cutting critique of Hollywood itself. The heart of the film is undoubtedly Gloria Grahame in her most wounded and potent performance. She plays Laurel Gray, a struggling actress who falls for Bogart’s troubled screenwriter, Dixon Steele. When he’s accused of murdering the hat-check girl at his local haunt, it eventually breeds paranoia and fear in Laurel as she realizes he’s capable of great violence. Laurel isn’t a femme fatale like the characters Grahame often played, but she shares their emotional intelligence, wit, and intensity. She’s a thoroughly modern woman whose hard-bitten exterior hides a yearning that Dixon, for a time, seems to fill. Through Grahame, Laurel’s story feels like an impactful consideration of the ways women navigate male violence from those closest to them, a theme that resonates even more strongly today. Grahame’s career faltered after the 1950s due to an unfortunate mix of personal scandal and because she made the fatal mistake of aging, which far too many women continue to be punished for in Hollywood. Grahame’s tender and tough performance as Laurel demonstrates that Hollywood’s inability to respect her skill and give her the roles she deserved is a great loss.