The strange life of the actress who played Violet Bick in the Christmas Classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. A Blonde trail-blazer rocked by scandal, validated with an Oscar, and painfully shy and insecure should have been one of the all-time greats!
For 1946 the character Violet Bick played by actress Gloria Grahame at the age of 23, was a bit racy for it’s time. The script did not need salacious dialog or dirty language to get her point across. No, it was Grahame’s body language that sold the character as one who loved to seduce all types of men and especially the brother of a war hero in George Bailey played by the great straight-laced Jimmy Stewart.
Gloria Grahame pre-dated America’s all-time blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe by three years in age and five years before Monroe’s career took off. You could say that Grahame invented the “blonde bounce” before Monroe did and was turning heads before Monroe turned her hair color from red to blonde. However, Grahame had one thing that Monroe never could achieve, an academy award for best supporting actress (The Bad and the Beautiful 1953). Like Monroe, Grahame along with many actresses at that time suffered many heartache’s and died a young woman certainly before her time. In the 57 years Grahame lived she packed a lot of life into this period of time along with some strange twists. Including a major scandal that by today’s standards would be criminal.
THE SCANDAL THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE
In June 1951, Nicholas Ray (Grahame’s Fourth and final Husband) caught her in bed at their Malibu home with Tony, his 13-year-old son from his first marriage who’d just returned from military school.
“It was the kind of thing Gloria Grahame the actress would have done in her movies,” says biopic director Paul McGuigan.
“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!” Explained Grahame.
The explosive tryst would only be reignited nine years later when Grahame married Tony Ray; she had two children with him. (The union made Tony the stepfather to his half brother Timothy, the child Ray had fathered with Grahame.) Tony was 23, Grahame was 37, and they kept their new relationship a secret until the Hollywood tabloids found out about it in 1962 and roasted them for it.
“The early years of the Gloria-Tony marriage were so contentious and stressful that Gloria endured a brief mental breakdown and eventually underwent shock treatments in 1964 to help clear her mind of her troubles,” Robert J. Lentz wrote in his 2011 book, Gloria Grahame, Bad Girl of Film Noir.
She and Anthony then divorced in 1974.
IMAGE IS EVERYTHING
Extremely insecure despite her good looks and acting confidence on screen, Grahame was fixated on what she deemed her imperfections. Unhappy with the tilt of her upper lip, she often stuffed cotton along her gum line to straighten it out. The effect was cosmetically less than flattering and made it difficult for her to speak. A leading man, after kissing her, ended up with a mouth full of cotton. Eventually in later years Grahame relented and had plastic surgery to enhance her lips. Today, plastic surgery is as normal as going to the hair dresser.
Her crippling self-doubt had long served as fodder for journalists. Hedda Hopper pegged her “a shy little introvert [who’s] so self-conscious it hurts,” while an April 1952 Los Angeles Times profile painted her as a helpless worrywart who begged crew members to lambaste her performative flaws on set. This was no different on Oscar night in March of 1953;
“I…. suffered from a really bad attack of ‘Oscar Fright,’ and I don’t think I’ve recovered from it yet,” Grahame told Silver Screen magazine the summer after she won the coveted award.
Although her acceptance speech consisted of a quick “Thank you very much” as she literally walked by the podium after presenter Edmund Gwennand stopped her long enough to hand her the statue. Grahame claimed to appreciate the accolade but felt unworthy since she had only known the supporting actor awards to be presented to older actors who were more qualified. Grahame also strangely admitted that her son had appropriated the statuette for himself:
“I practically haven’t seen my Oscar since I won it. Timmy plays with it in his room…. and takes it to bed with him when he goes to sleep. As for what I think of my cherished Oscar, all I can say is that no fond mother takes away her child’s favorite plaything!”
What read in the room of her piers as a bashful star’s brief (but no less endearing) display of humility quickly snowballed into a scandal for Grahame. Rumors circulated that she rebuked the honor after getting drunk at the event, which caused her to trip and curse en route to claim the prize — none of which was true. She did, however, decline to sit for post-victory interviews, a move that didn’t attract new fans among Hollywood’s ruthless clan of gossip columnists.
Sadly, following her Oscar victory, the beauty Grahame embodied so artfully on screen never reflected the personal turmoil festering under the surface. At 29, she was already two divorces deep into a turbulent romantic life: one from allegedly abusive actor Stanley Clements, the other from boozy “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray, with whom she had a son, Timothy.
In subsequent years, her image hardened as the mysterious bad girl of in films like “The Big Heat and Human Desire” — until, in 1954, she began filming the adaptation of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma!
“She was pushed and belittled [by the crew] and stumbled her way through because she felt so inadequate doing a musical,” remembers Grahame’s niece Vicky Mitchum, claiming it was her aunt’s Oklahoma! Colleagues added to the hostile working environment and fed into her insecurities after learning Grahame couldn’t carry a tune despite her Academy-Award Winning status. “Everybody told her how horrible she was.”
Grahame herself may not have been an innocent party. She allegedly assaulted costars Charlotte Greenwood and Gene Nelson on separate occasions, and purposely stepped on scene partners’ lines. Scarred by her Oklahoma experience, Grahame scaled back her work to care for her children in 1955, divorced Cy Howard in 1957, and married former stepson Tony Ray (son of Nicholas) in 1960. In that same year she resumed stage acting, combined with TV work and, from 1970, some mostly inferior films.
Gloria was described as a serious, skillful actress; spontaneous, honest, and strong-willed; imaginative and curious; incredibly sexy but insecure about her looks (prompting plastic surgery on her famous lips); loving appreciative male company; “a bit loony.”
Her busiest period of British and American stage work ended abruptly in 1981 when she collapsed from cancer symptoms during a rehearsal.
KNOCK ON ‘WOOD’
Even in death, Gloria Grahame was upstaged by another famous actress, Natalie Wood, who died November 29, 1981 by accidental drowning at the age of 43. Gloria died a little more than a month before in October 5, 1981, with much less fanfare than Wood. Ironically Grahame had been married to “Rebel without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray. Grahame had died a month prior to Wood the same way she was moved aside with her career with Marilyn Monroe. Equally talented as Wood and a pioneer with her “Blonde Bombshell” image taken by Monroe, Grahame’s legacy was left somewhere in the middle of obscurity. Remember, Natalie Wood could not sing either and was dubbed over in “West Side Story” with no harassment like Grahame suffered in the movie “Oklahoma!” Of course no one should be harassed in any situation.
In 1980, Grahame was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but refused to have surgery. While in England in 1981, she had her stomach drained, which resulted in a perforated bowel, and she collapsed during a stage rehearsal. Despite medical treatment, she was in serious condition, and her children took her back to New York City, where she died shortly afterwards. Her last film role was that of Florinda, in “The Nesting” (1982), filmed before she went to England but released just after her death. Another irony, Natalie Wood died before her final movie, “Brainstorm” was completed in 1981. The film was released two years later in 1983. Grahame is buried in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery under the name Gloria H. Grahame.