Gloria Grahame: Out of the Past

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One of the pleasures of the gold-standard Turner Classic Movies channel is its showcasing of film noir – the loosely defined class of taut, violent, often-fatalistic 1940s and 1950s crime thrillers that hinted at a seamier world below the postwar surface. TCM presents a regular “Noir Alley” feature on Sunday mornings, but these movies are all over the schedule, and – if you seek them out – on home video and streaming services, too.

Films noir were replete with hardboiled antiheroes (inhabited by Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell and their like) and femme fatales. The latter, who are just as likely to kill a guy as kiss him, were often portrayed by great dames who became genre specialists: Claire Trevor, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Greer … and (sigh) Gloria Grahame.

Grahame was a spunky blonde who could show tough and tender almost within the same frame of film. She was such a dynamo in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) that her nine-minute performance as a screenwriter’s philandering wife was enough to earn her an Academy Award for best supporting actress. Grahame also had an impactful off-screen life: four marriages, including unions with director Nicholas Ray and Ray’s son by a previous wife (yeah, her former stepson).

I bring this up now because Gloria Grahame has returned to the movies, in a way, with a new indie drama, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, coming this month to the Flint Institute of Arts. As played by Annette Bening, Grahame is seen in her later years – marriages kaput, fame waning – in the titular English seaport in 1979. Her new lover is an obscure, much-younger actor named Peter Turner (played by Jamie Bell), on whose memoir the film, directed by Paul McGuigan, is based.

Theirs is not an easy relationship, for, like the most hardcore of noir pictures, what kind of future does it really have? Grahame is still something of a celebrity in the working-class town, but not much else is going for her besides vanity afforded by the presence of her handsome companion. Soon, more-urgent concerns enter the picture, deepening the story and hinting at the wordplay of the film’s title.

Had Bening been born 30 years earlier, she would have been a great film noir player herself, and this comeback role of sorts has earned praise as one of the best in her career. Watch for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (105 min., rated R) at the FIA on May 31, June 1 and June 3.

The other May titles in the FIA’s Friends of Modern Art film series also offer strong female protagonists, not least the waitress and singer (from an atypical background) in Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, which won the most recent Oscar for best foreign film. It’s scheduled for May 25-27.

Also slated are Chavela (May 4-6), a documentary about pioneering Latin-American singer Chavela Vargas; Novitiate (May 11-13), in which a nun-in-training struggles with faith issues; and Germany’s In the Fade (May 18-20), in which Diane Kruger plays a seeker of vengeance for violence within her family.

Also, on May 6-10, the Flint Jewish Federation and the FIA will present the 14th annual Karen Schneider Jewish Film Festival of Flint. Among the event’s highlights is its first-night offering, Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, a documentary about the legendary song-and-dance man.

The FIA ends its 2017-18 film season June 8-10 with a return engagement of the Oscar-nominated animated film, Loving Vincent, a tribute to the genius of Mr. van Gogh. A summer hiatus will follow … but only for the summer.

Per usual, information on all screenings at the FIA is available by visiting FlintArts.org or calling 810.234.1695.

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