What’s worse than being an aging woman? An aging woman who used to be lusted after by the masses as a film star. While this fate might not have befallen some of Hollywood’s biggest blonde bombshells thanks to premature death–Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield being the primary examples–it did transpire for Gloria Grahame. Los Angeles born like Norma Jeane herself, Grahame established her “shtick” from the outset as a femme fatale in her debut role as Sally Murfin in Blonde Fever. A small role in a Tracy/Hepburn movie called Without Love, followed by a supporting role in It’s A Wonderful Life gave Grahame enough clout to continue along at a steady clip in the “almost top billed” category, until things really started to take off after co-starring in In A Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart (a.k.a. Sean Penn in his married to Madonna years). This, of course, prompts the following exchange between Grahame (Annette Bening) and her much younger lover, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, a long way from Billy Elliott): “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke?” “Humphrey Bogart. And I didn’t like it then either.” Said in Graham’s baby voice, which sounds incongruous coming from an older woman, her inability to acknowledge that she isn’t acting the lines out from a movie, playing the part of some tartish ingenue is apparent in Bening’s performance. Adapted from Turner’s memoir of the same name by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh–no stranger to the biopic considering his first feature screenplay was Control, about Ian Curtis–Grahame is imbued with a vulnerability behind all that chutzpah, which so often makes for a truly great star. Even if those from a different era can only catch a glimmer of the faded light.
When Turner first encounters Grahame in the same boarding house he inhabits in the Primrose Hill area of London, it is 1979. He is twenty-six and she is fifty-four, which is far more scandalous than the Benjamin Braddock/Mrs. Robinson age difference (in real life, it pitted Dustin Hoffman’s twenty-nine years against Anne Bancroft’s thirty-five–ain’t Hollywood grand that way with its ageism towards women?). And yet, in spite of having no idea of her icon status or glamorous past as a premier star of the Golden Age of cinema, Peter experiences a natural attraction to her. Something in her spirit that expresses both a purity and a defiance he can’t seem to resist, least of all when she flirtatiously tells him she needs a dancing partner to help her “hustle.” Declaring that he’ll do just about anything if she makes him a drink as recompense for the favor, the coquetry subsequently goes into full effect on her part as they dance to Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
Although he clearly fancies Grahame, asking her to see Alien with him–it was the movie to see in 1979–it is, as usual, Grahame who must make the first move with the milquetoast male playing her proverbial co-star. Unfortunately, things get off to a rocky seductive start back in her room when she tells him she wants to play Juliet in the Shakespeare classic (this desire will come back later in the narrative). He incredulously asks, “You mean the Nurse don’t you?” (incidentally, Grahame did play “Nurse” in a film called It Happened in Brooklyn). Hurt by his insinuation that she’s too old for him, she starts to kick him out, only for him to finally make his move and kiss her. It’s, of course, often cringeworthy to watch the two of them in these types of compromising positions. And, as a result, it makes the viewer confront his or her own natural prejudice against a middle-aged woman taking advantage of her power by enjoying the perk of a boy toy. While we might also be disgusted when it happens between an older man and a much younger female (Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Smith come to mind), we somehow still find it more socially acceptable. Maybe it has to do with the fact that when one sees a “not a boy, not yet a man” with someone old enough to be his mother, we think of him with, well, his mother. In contrast, the girl who goes for an older man is less associated with having an Electra complex so much as a lust for luxury and loyalty that rich white men in their fifties have historically been able to provide. But when it’s a younger male falling for a woman twice his age, the assumption is almost always that he’s got a mom fetish in addition to wanting to be kept. As Bening herself emphasizes in an interview in promotion of the film, “[Peter] was very very close to his mom, Bella.”
Eventually, Grahame herself became close with Bella (Julie Walters) as well, attracted to the gregariousness and openness of his quintessentially Scouse family. But the closeness, for Gloria, must come to an end when Peter visits her in New York in 1981. A revelation about the state of her health prompts her to push him away. He, in turn, becomes frustrated enough to bandy the insult that hits her Achilles’ heel the hardest: “You crazy old lady!” No, this is not the thing to say to the woman who was so insecure about her age that she got plastic surgery long before it had simply become a matter of “good grooming,” causing her to ruin her signature pout (which she would often stuff her upper lip with cotton to achieve). And to think, just a few days before, Grahame had asked Peter to live with her permanently in New York, prompting him to throw back one of her most famous lines from Oklahoma!, “I’m just a boy who can’t say no.” However, unlike Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Grahame can say no to unfairly monopolizing Peter’s youth when she knows she hasn’t got much longer. It is out of love that she lets him go–and out of love that she seeks him out in her final hour. Desmond, the original caricature of what it meant to be a female film star past her prime still clutching desperately to the image of her “celluloid self” would never be so non-oppressive. Which is precisely why the relationship between her and Joe Gillis (William Holden) was fatally tainted. Even if, like Grahame and Turner, they both had a shared passion for the world built up around acting.
Grahame, whose performance in The Bad and the Beautiful lasted all of nine minutes, won an Oscar in 1953 for the part, a testament to just how much of an impact she could make with nothing more than a look, a gesture or a bold entrance. Her acceptance speech that year, among the shortest ever delivered, is a further demonstration of how her terseness served her well. Not to mention the brevity of her stage time being a metaphor for the transience of success and happiness, foreshadowing her last dalliance before dying at the age of fifty-seven.
Produced by British badass and James Bond aficionado Barbara Broccoli, there is quite a bit to be said for how much this is a film for women, particularly as it continues to be an apparent fact that they’re expected to be, as Madonna once phrased it, “put out to pasture after a certain age.” Time and again, we are showed this motif in movies centered around or geared toward “old women” (The First Wives Club and Something’s Gotta Give come to mind). And with each film that is released pertaining to this subject, we don’t always get closer to a happier ending for these “expired sexpots.” In truth, the woman generally seems to need to die (e.g. Stockard Channing as Cynthia Swann-Griffin in the aforementioned The First Wives Club and Ruth Gordon as Maude in Harold and Maude) as part of the story. But at least the conversation is persisting, forcing us to address one of the last societal taboos. Apart from marrying your former stepson, which yes, Grahame did. But at least she didn’t marry her current stepchild, the way Woody Allen felt inclined to.