Gloria Grahame got her big break in the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, but her real life wasn’t always wonderful. Grahame, who is the subject of the biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, battled personal demons and breast cancer, and made headlines for a scandal that would rock her personal life—and her career.
Annette Bening, who plays Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, told Deadline the late actress had a complicated life.
“There’s a certain mystery about Gloria,” Bening said.
“She was a great film noir femme fatale and there was a period of time when she was very successful and she had a scandalous life…She called herself ‘The Replacement’ or the second-tier.”
Gloria Grahame started her acting career in the early 1940s with MGM, later landing the role of Bedford Falls floozy Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946. Playing the film noir femme fatale became Grahame’s specialty. But the actress, known as one of the “blonde sexpots” of her day, became increasingly obsessed with her looks.
According to LA Weekly, early in her career, Gloria Grahame felt that her lips were too thin so she underwent a series of cosmetic surgeries that eventually left her upper lip paralyzed. Grahame later began to stuff cotton under her lip to give herself a fuller pout and would often have to run to the bathroom to replace the cotton between takes while on film sets. Meanwhile, Gloria’s leading men would be left with cotton mouth—literally.
Gloria Grahame married Rebel Without a Cause director Nicolas Ray during the height of her fame and they welcomed a son, Timothy, in 1948. Gloria Grahame later won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the movie The Bad and the Beautiful. But Gloria Grahame’s marriage to Nicholas Ray was never a match made in heaven.
“I was infatuated with her, but I didn’t like her very much,” Ray once said, according to Slate. The director also reportedly gambled away much of his fortune so he wouldn’t have any money for his wife to share as community property.
In 1951, Nicholas Ray came home to the couple’s Malibu residence to find his wife Gloria Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son Tony, his child from his first marriage who had just returned home from military school.
“It was the kind of thing Gloria Grahame the actress would have done in her movies,” Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool director Paul McGuigan told the Hollywood Reporter.
Gloria Grahame had first met Tony Ray when he was 10-years-old. The teen and his father had never been close, but it’s no surprise that the scandal marked the end of Gloria’s marriage to Nicholas Ray. The couple divorced, although Grahame’s scandalous secret was kept under wraps for years.
Nine years after her scandalous affair, Gloria Grahame married her ex-husband’s son in a secret ceremony in Mexico, making Tony Ray the unlikely stepfather to his half-brother Timothy. Gloria Grahame and Anthony Ray had two kids together and divorced in 1974 after 14 years of marriage.
Of her marriages to the Ray men, Gloria Grahame was defiant. According to The Sun, Grahame reportedly once said the following.
“I married Nicholas Ray, the director. People yawned. Later on I married his son and from the press’s reaction you’d have thought I was committing incest or robbing the cradle.”
In an interview posted on The Nicholas Ray Foundation’s website, the famed director talked about Gloria’s affair with his son.
“Oh, yes, it’s good for the tabloids, but not very interesting. It happened years ago,” Ray said. “They are divorced today…Everybody thought it was gloomy, and it made me feel like locking my door. And I don’t think it was very healthy for my son.”
After her divorce from Tony Ray, Gloria Grahame later fell for another much younger man. The final years of Gloria’s life were spent with Peter Turner, who at age 26, was 29 years her junior when they met in 1978. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based Turner’s 1986 memoir about his relationship with Gloria Grahame and her final days.
Gloria Grahame died in 1981 from cancer and peritonitis. She was 57-years-old.
You can see Gloria Grahame in her breakout role as Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life below.