Offscreen and on, Gloria Grahame always fell for the wrong man. Married four times, the movie star, whose work is getting a two-week retrospective at UCLA, chose, unfailingly, men who were overbearing, egotistical and, generally speaking, bad news. These personal missteps served her well in front of the camera, where she specialized in portraying women who had learned the hard way to expect the worst from a man, and who knew too that such knowledge was useless in the end, that some kinds of trouble are simply too alluring.

Grahame’s beauty, formed by a lush, voracious mouth and remarkably expressive eyebrows, was unconventional, even disturbing, and MGM, which signed her in 1944, didn‘t know what to do with her. Frank Capra, fortunately, did. Desperate for a “young blond sexpot,” he snagged her for his RKO production It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), in which Grahame, as Violet Bick, the town flirt, was a revelation. RKO quickly borrowed her again for Edward Dmytryk‘s groundbreaking if airless anti-anti-Semitism polemic Crossfire (1947), screening this weekend. Although it’s only a two-scene role, Grahame is unforgettable as a complex dime-a-dance bar girl involved in murder. She received an Academy Award nomination, and while she won the Oscar in 1952, for The Bad and the Beautiful, she lost in 1948, probably because the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, and Hollywood was scared to death.

Around this time, with one bad marriage already behind her, Grahame, at age 24 or 25, became obsessed with what she saw as flaws in her face, particularly her upper lip, which she subjected to a series of cosmetic surgeries that left the lip paralyzed. Mortified, Grahame began stuffing cotton beneath it while filming, to give her mouth a fuller shape. In Suicide Blonde, his invaluable 1989 biography, Vincent Curcio reports that the actress would run to the bathroom between takes to replace the saliva-soaked cotton and reapply the thick layers of lipstick that were her trademark, a practice that drove both cast and crew nuts.

In 1948 she married the gifted maverick director Nicholas Ray, who cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart in the suspense film In a Lonely Place (1950), which opens the UCLA retrospective. This is Grahame‘s most fully realized performance, and the doomed relationship between her devoted-girlfriend character and Bogart’s angry screenwriter has been seen as a reflection of Ray and Grahame‘s turbulent marriage, which by then was on a long, slow slide to hell. Gossip-sheet immortality struck them one summer afternoon in 1951, when the director drove home to Malibu to find Grahame in flagrante with Tony, his 14-year-old son from a previous marriage, who’d returned that very day from military school.

Scandal followed scandal, especially after Grahame married Tony nine years later, a move that was heart-driven, ballsy and utterly foolish. Movie work dried up, but by then Grahame already had a rich body of work in the vaults, including her uncompromising turn in Fritz Lang‘s brutal 1953 film The Big Heat (playing Tuesday at UCLA), in which Grahame shoots a woman in cold blood, throws hot coffee in Lee Marvin’s face and somehow remains a tragic heroine. On the opposite end of the spectrum is her deceptively layered, sprightly performance as country bumpkin Ado Annie in Fred Zinnemann‘s 1955 screen rendition of Oklahoma! (screening April 21), although her uncooperative, self-absorbed behavior on the set destroyed what was left of her professional reputation.

Surprisingly, she and Tony Ray remained happily married for a time and had two sons, but they finally parted in 1974 after yet another nasty, drama-filled divorce proceeding. Afterward, and before dying of breast cancer in 1981 at age 58, Grahame became passionate about stage acting, in U.S. regional theater and abroad, insisting, even in her final days, that she continue to rehearse for an English production of The Glass Menagerie. Without the last-minute intervention of her children she might well have died there, under the floodlights. That, finally, was the place she’d come to trust the most, where her unpredictable, endlessly daring instincts led not to heartache but to something approaching grace.

The “Gloria Grahame: Bad and Beautiful” series runs concurrently with “Nicholas Ray: In a Lonely Place” at the James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall at UCLA, both through April 21; see Film and Video Events in Calendar for schedule. For the Grahame series schedule for this week, see Film Special Events in Calendar.

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