By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 28, 2017 at 10:00 AM EST
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Gloria Grahame may not have been a classic Hollywood actress with the name recognition of women like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis — and yet, she was every inch as compelling and talented as the biggest stars in the firmament of the studio system.

Grahame made her biggest impact in film noir, nailing the peculiar blend of fragile femininity and hard-as-nails practicality that came to define the femme fatale in a series of roles that ranged from blowsy ditz to brassy moll to downright deadly schemer. Nowadays, she perhaps gets more publicity for her role in a classic Hollywood scandal, playing a key part in a love triangle with Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray and his son Anthony Ray (both of whom she married and divorced).

Grahame was a startling talent, an Oscar-winning actress with an intense work ethic that kept her acting until her final days and exploring “method” techniques before there was even a word for that style of acting. Known for her peroxide blond hair and her distinctive pout, Grahame crafted a film and public persona as a woman with a unique blend of sexuality, warmth, and existential ennui.

With the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Grahame is finally having the spotlight turned on her and her career. Annette Bening brings the actress to life in her later years, when she was primarily working onstage in the U.K. and battling stomach cancer that would ultimately end her life at the age of 57. Before watching Bening’s take on the silver-screen great, check out these seven essential Gloria Grahame films.

Crossfire (1947) 

Everett Collection

Grahame had several roles under her belt, including a memorable supporting part as town flirt Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, when RKO launched her career to new heights with Crossfire. The film was an unflinching exploration of anti-Semitism at a time when such subjects were taboo onscreen. (It preceded the Oscar-winning A Gentleman’s Agreement, which explored similar subject matter, by three months.) Grahame earned her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Ginny, a booze-soaked dance hall hostess who is a potential witness to the central murder — or at least holds the answer to a key alibi. Grahame lost to Celeste Holm from A Gentleman’s Agreement, but it proved an essential step forward in her career as it was the first time she portrayed a shadowy woman of questionable morality in an atmospheric noir, which would come to be her sweet spot as a performer. The film, with its tale of a sergeant investigating his fellow soldiers to prove their innocence, was the first so-called B-movie to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars.

In a Lonely Place (1950) 

Everett Collection

Directed by then-husband Nicholas Ray as their marriage was falling apart, Grahame delivered one of her most indelible performances as Laurel Gray, the haunting next-door neighbor to the violent and temperamental screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart). Laurel clears Dix of murder and the pair fall in love, but she slowly begins to doubt his innocence. Bogart is at his most cynical and volatile, delivering what many consider his career-best performance. Grahame gives an intoxicating turn that vacillates between dread and desire, helping to build the film’s sense of claustrophobia. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” Dixon writes in his screenplay and recites to Laurel — but the words also serve as the perfect epigraph for their relationship. Ray reflected much of his and Grahame’s own marital strife in the onscreen drama. The film was also intended as a purposeful indictment of the darker sides of Hollywood and celebrity. Filmmaker Curtis Hanson cited it as a personal favorite and hugely influential on his own noir project L.A. Confidential (1997).

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

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Long before Hugh Jackman turned the story of P.T. Barnum into a musical extravaganza, there was The Greatest Show on Earth, which features the actual 1951 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus troupe. Charlton Heston stars as circus manager Brad Braden, who must disappoint his trapeze artist girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton) when he brings in the hotshot aerialist known as the Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) and unwittingly finds himself into a love triangle. Grahame plays a supporting role as Angel, the elephant girl in the circus. She replaced a pregnant Lucille Ball in the role and heavily trained to do her own stunts. Grahame had to develop a working relationship with the elephant in the film and even allowed the animal to put its foot on her face as part of one of the onscreen tricks she recreated. Drama, romantic intrigue, and a murder mystery involving a doctor and a mercy killing drive the plot of a film that is ultimately about showcasing the various attractions of the circus. And for Grahame, it was a demonstration of how far she was willing to go for her craft.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Everett Collection

Grahame won the best supporting actress Oscar that had eluded her in Crossfire for her portrayal of Rosemary, a Hollywood-obsessed Southern belle who meets a tragic end when she strays from her screenwriter husband. Vincente Minnelli is best remembered for his Technicolor musical extravaganzas, but he went pitch-black directing this Hollywood insider tale of backstabbing and morally bereft ambition. Director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) all recount why they hate cruel, mercenary producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) and will never work with him again. Grahame features heavily in the screenwriter Bartlow’s flashback as his wife while he recounts his inadvertent rise to success via Shields’ cold-hearted plotting. When Grahame won the Oscar for her performance, she set the record for the shortest amount of screen time to win an acting award, broken 24 years later by Beatrice Straight in Network.

Sudden Fear (1952)

 

Everett Collection

Gloria Grahame often portrayed femmes fatales with hearts of gold or girlfriends at the mercy of her gangster boyfriends and the general indifference of the world. Here, in Sudden Fear, she is trouble with a capital T. Grahame plays Irene Neves, the scheming mistress of Jack Palance’s Lester Blaine, who helps him plot to murder his wealthy playwright wife, played by Joan Crawford. This is Crawford at the height of her mid-career noir comeback, portraying steely women enmeshed in the dastardly plots of others in her life (see also: Mildred Pierce and Possessed). It’s a delight to watch Crawford and Grahame face off against each other in their plotting when Crawford’s Myra Hudson moves to turn the tables on her husband and his lover. And though Grahame was superb at bringing an edge of wounded vulnerability to her roles, it’s fun to watch her relish the role of an unquestionably cruel, greedy, and conniving woman.

The Big Heat (1953) 

Everett Collection

One thing that set Grahame apart from other actresses was her willingness to go there — to show the ugly parts of life, physical or otherwise. Never is that more on display than in The Big Heat, in which she portrays Debby Marsh, girlfriend to tough guy Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). She finds herself the victim of his sadistic temper when he throws a pot of boiling coffee in her face, believing her to be an informant to the police. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates an officer suicide that leads him deeper into the machinations of a crime syndicate. Grahame gets to play out the ultimate redemption arc as gangster’s moll turned hero, and even gets her own peculiar justice against her abusive boyfriend. In an interview with Silver Screen, Grahame once said, “I dote on death scenes, or any kind of Spillane-type manhandling, because it is those scenes which linger in an audience’s memory. I don’t want to be typed as a woman with a face nice enough to look at, but I am interested in roles that sometimes turn a cinema-goer away in horror. So I didn’t mind having my face horribly scarred because my gangster boyfriend threw a pot of boiling coffee over me. Being glamorous in movie roles all the time is not only artificial but horribly monotonous … So far, no one has offered me the role of the Hunchback of the Notre Dame. Believe me, I’m the girl who would play it.”

Oklahoma! (1955)

Everett Collection

One of these things is not like the other: Grahame is best remembered for her place in the noir pantheon, but she concluded the most successful (and visible) part of her Hollywood career with this adaptation of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Grahame portrays Ado Annie, an oversexed farm girl who “can’t say no,” and brings a burst of tongue-in-cheek humor to a role that capitalizes on her Hollywood persona as a sensual, existential screen goddess. She did not particularly enjoy making the film, given that she was not a natural singer or dancer and struggled to master those aspects of the role. Still, there’s something effervescent and fitting about the fact that Grahame closed out the peak of her career playing a fun-loving, romantic comedienne — a personality probably far closer to her true self than the carefully crafted, steel-edged dame that propelled her to stardom.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool hits theaters Dec. 29.

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