Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio

“She has the manner of a schoolgirl and the eyes of a sorceress.” Cecil B. Demille describing Gloria Grahame.

Gloria Grahame is one of my all-time favourite film noir actresses. She first came to my attention in The Big Heat–one of my all-time favourite noir films. Unfortunately, as with many actresses of her day, her time in the limelight was short, and fans are left feeling shortchanged that Grahame never really made it to that rare coveted spot of the Hollywood Big Time. Don’t get me wrong, Gloria didn’t do badly, and she rose through the ranks, and through the horrible studio contract system to deliver some excellent performances.

For me, Gloria faded into obscurity sometime in the late 50s, but after reading her biography Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio, I now know that Grahame’s career didn’t end when Hollywood lost interest. She had an extensive career in television and theatre and although she no longer commanded the big bucks contracts, the work was pretty steady–so much so that she left 100,000 to be divided amongst her four children when she died in 1981 at the age of 57.

Curcio’s book is considered the definitive bio on Gloria, and as far as I know it’s the only one–although Gloria’s one-time lover, Peter Turner wrote an account of Gloria’s last days called Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Curcio acknowledges that Gloria was “mysterious and enigmatic.” In writing a bio, those qualities make for a difficult, if intriguing, subject. For the bulk of the book, I didn’t feel as though I had a handle on just who Gloria was, and what made her tick. She remained a mystery through her rise and her fall, her explosive marriages and divorces to Stanley Clements, Cy Howard, Nick Ray, and finally Nick Ray Jr. (the son of her third husband). While the author does an excellent job of charting her career through her films, sometimes the lack of personal details is frustrating and also–since this is a bio–surprising. For example, in one section of the book the author details the pinnacle of Gloria’s film career, which he identifies as 1952-1956. During this productive time, Gloria starred as Irene Neves in Sudden Fear. While the author details how Joan Crawford was talked into accepting Jack Palance as her leading man, and how Crawford couldn’t stand to see Gloria on the set, the reason behind Crawford’s antagonism–the fact that Gloria was having an affair with Palance is mentioned as a minor aside. Now considering that Gloria was at the time married (but separated) from Nick and dating Cy Howard, the affair with Palance would have had some impact on her relationship with Howard, but there’s no idea or speculation if this off-screen affair was normal behaviour for Gloria or an aberration. The author also makes the point that Gloria was very attracted to Sterling Hayden and that during the filming of Naked Alibi, she made some strong overtures towards Hayden which pretty much scared him off–again this is mentioned, and while I began to wonder if this co-star/lover trend was a theme with Gloria, this point is never examined in the book.

Similarly Gloria’s affair with stepson Nick Jr. is downplayed, and then there’s a mention of how she traveled to England and opened a suitcase full of “every Technicolour pill you could dream of.” What does this mean? But the subject is never explored. I was left wondering if Gloria had drug problems, but unfortunately the subject is not addressed.

The book is at its strongest when analyzing Gloria’s career, and the author includes an excellent analysis of why she never became a star: “She was offbeat, both in her beauty and her acting, and producers never were sure what to do with her.” Also included are details about how she fought for some roles which she never got while others fell into her lap simply because everyone turned them down.

But when the book covers Gloria’s character, it’s at its weakest. I get the impression that perhaps the subject eluded the author in many ways or perhaps he just didn’t want to focus on the sensational stuff. Curcio discusses Gloria’s lifelong tinkering with her looks through endless (sometimes botched plastic surgery) and her glaring insecurities, but then at other points the jury is out for such intriguing issues as Gloria’s possible naiveté/love affairs. Additional analysis of some of these behaviours would really have added to the book’s depth. It’s certainly okay for any bio subject to remain an enimga, but there are some issues hinted at in the book which are frustratingly not explored. The book sometimes goes back and forth in time rather than stick to a strict chronology, which confuses matters a bit.

Funnily enough, when the book moved on to Gloria’s post-Hollywood career, there are more anecdotes from co-workers and it’s at this point that a fuller, less distant impression of Gloria begins to appear. In her final illness, her toughness comes through loud and clear. Her final illness remains a bit of a mystery: was she in denial about the seriousness of her cancer or was this just a coping mechanism? I think there are arguments both ways on this one, but one thing is for certain, she most definitely grasped the idea of the futility of surgery, so no one was about to convince her otherwise.

One thing–the book’s synopsis of Naked Alibi is incorrect. The book states that Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) is “taken off the force for almost strangling” Al Willis (Gene Barry). That’s not correct. Hayden is fired for an incriminating photo snapped by an enterprising photographer. The photo, due to the angle and the circumstances, makes it look as though Conroy means Al Willis harm, when in reality he’s trying to stop Al stumbling into an oven.

All in all, in spite of its shortcomings, this book is a must read for any fan, and thanks to the book, I am now inspired to hunt through my Tales of the Unexpected DVDS and find the episodes in which Gloria starred.

Finally, I wanted to include this quote from the book because I think it nails Gloria’s on-screen mystery.
Peter James:

“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.”

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Filed under Books about film, Film Noir, Gloria Grahame

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