At the movies · In the news · Memories

Gloria Grahame and me

Last weekend I began a rather long piece about the 1979 movie “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, which features Gloria Grahame, one of my favourite actresses. I noted: “She died in 1981 and her relationship with a young actor, Peter Turner, is recorded in his book “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. You’re likely to hear a whole lot more about her in the months ahead. A film based on the book is about to be released, and Annette Bening is being tipped for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ms Grahame.”

I had no idea when drafting the piece how much publicity the movie was already getting. The London premiere took place a day or two earlier. During the week Annette Bening had appeared on “This Morning” (hosted by Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby) and on Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2 (Gary Davies sitting in) and she and co-star Jamie Bell were on the Jonathan Ross Show on ITV on Saturday night, hot-foot from the premiere. If you want to check it out the show is available on the ITV Hub, here, but it looks like you’ll have to sign in to see it. I haven’t done so, having seen the show live. (It also includes lots of curse-words, and a memorable, and rather incongruous, rendition of Stormzy’s “Blinded by your grace”, Bradley Walsh singing the song to Stormzy himself.)

It has started me thinking about Gloria Grahame and how many of her movies I saw back in the early 80s, and where and when. My diary for 1981 tells me that on 9 January I saw “The Big Heat” on TV, the Fritz Lang film noir during which she has a pot of hot coffee thrown at her; in later scenes her face is covered in bandages. It was screened late on a Friday night, and I watched with my dad, who had seen it many times before. On 10 March I saw her in “In a Lonely Place”, directed by Nicholas Ray, who became her husband and, later, her estranged father-in-law. As you will know already, if you have heard any of the interviews with Annette Bening or Jamie Bell, Ms Grahame’s fourth husband was Nicholas Ray Junior, her step-son from her marriage to Nick Ray Senior. On 10 March 1981 the movie was paired with “Gilda” and my diary doesn’t tell me whether it was at the Scala on Charlotte Street or the Everyman Hampstead. I think it was the Scala. I saw “Oklahoma!” on Good Friday that year, 17 April, during which she sings “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no”. By now I was a fan, and I won’t trouble you with the dates and times of all the other screenings I went to, of movies like “Crossfire”, “Macao”, “Sudden Fear”, “Human Desire” and the fairly new release (at the time) “Melvin and Howard” (Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen in that one).

She was, like Marlon Brando, a film-star whose movies I would track down wherever they were playing, back when London had a thriving repertory cinema scene. As things turned out, she and Brando never made a film together. I already knew this was true (having seen every movie Brando made before 1992) but have just confirmed it by learning how to search for two actors together using this option on IMDB. That will probably provide me with hours of distraction in the months ahead.

Ms Grahame died on 5 October 1981, a Monday, my first full day at university. (My family had driven me there the day before.) I didn’t hear about her death immediately. You didn’t, in those days. The news saddened me. During my Christmas vacation the Electric on Portobello Road put on a tribute to her, “The Cobweb” paired with “The Bad and the Beautiful”, both directed by Vincente Minnelli. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the latter. My 1982 diary reveals that it was Sunday 3 January. The final verse of “Candle in the Wind” (lyrics by Bernie Taupin) includes the words “Goodbye Norma Jean / From the young man in the 22nd row”. I might well have been in the 22nd row of the mostly-empty Electric on that cold January afternoon, saying my goodbyes to someone who had been a Hollywood star but who had made a movie late in life less than a mile from where I live here in West London. I described her earlier as “one of my favourite actresses” but realize now that that doesn’t go far enough. She was, and still is, my favourite.



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