Women at the Oscars usually get the short end of the stick. And I’m not even talking about Kathryn Bigelow and the atrocity that is Hollywood’s view of female directors. I’m talking about a very specific group of ladies, who I like to think of as The Usual Suspects in Slinky Gowns. Three of my favorite femme fatales: Ida Lupino, Gene Tierney, and Gloria Grahame. Of the three, who appeared in close to 170 films between them, only Gloria Grahame ever won an Oscar – for Best Supporting Actress. Lupino was one of the first female directors and producers, and was the first female to direct a noir. Nominated for Emmys for her work in television, Lupino never won recognition in either arena. Gene Tierney was nominated for an Oscar in 1945 for Leave Her to Heaven but did not win. Tierney’s story is also a sad one, including multiple hospitalizations and institutions. These three women all did amazing things, not only for the noir genre and the role of the femme fatale, but for Hollywood and women in the film industry. Lupino was posthumously recognized with a ‘Muse Award’ by New York Women in Film and Television, which I think suits all three perfectly. Now, if you will permit me, I would like to bestow my own ‘Muse Award’ on each, for three very different reasons.
Muse Award: Ida Lupino, for pioneer spirit
The Hitch-Hiker is a strange movie for a woman to have directed, as no women appear in it. A little girl appears briefly, but no women. Lupino was no stranger to film noir, having starred in several, and was definitely no stranger to how women’s roles operated in film noir. Usually the woman is the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. Almost always she is a ‘temptation,’ although sometimes a ‘reward.’ (For instance in High Sierra, Ida Lupino’s character is the tempting femme fatale, literally tempting Bogart’s character to his death, and Joan Leslie’s girl with a twisted leg is the unattainable damsel.) Lupino co-wrote the script with husband Collier Young and Robert Joseph, with Lupino directing. The rest of the credited cast and crew are all male. The film is masculine, within traditional structures. The opening sequences, of buddies Collins and Bowen driving is reminiscent of a romantic weekend away, a couple heading out together. The friends’ care for each is evident, and their easy manner together is the ‘romance,’ so to speak of the film. It is a road movie: obviously. Collins and Bowen start out for a fishing trip and are hijacked by hitch-hiker Emmett Meyers, who has been hitching rides and killing drivers.
Meyers tells both men near the end that they had many chances to escape, but because of their refusal to leave each other, they failed. The traditional male-female relationship becomes the friendship of the two men; the traditional carefree road movie becomes infused with danger and desperation. Lupino was familiar with these structures and the genre within which she was working, and she crafted a film within genre: serial killer, suspense, check, that also bucked conventions that had confined her.
Muse Award: Gene Tierney, for bravery
Gene Tierney is known as a film noir femme mostly for her role in Laura, as the ‘murder’ victim whose portrait detective Dana Andrews falls in love with. Who wouldn’t? Gene was stunning. Reportedly so stunning that when visiting Warners when she was 17, she was offered a contract on the spot. Her parents urged her to turn it down because of the low pay. Instead Gene had a debutante ball before going on the Broadway stage. In 1940 she signed with 20th Century Fox and spent the decade there working with Ernt Lubitsch, Otto Preminger (3 times), Dana Andrews (twice), Joseph L. Manciewz, Tyrone Power, and Jules Dassin, in multiple noirs. Gene married Oleg Cassini in 1941 and her first daughter Daria was born in 1943 (between Heaven Can Wait and Laura). Daria was born deaf, partially blind, and mentally handicapped. Gene had contracted rubella while pregnant, resulting in Daria’s condition. Gene became depressed after she gave birth, and despite the birth of healthy daughter Christina in 1948, she was admitted to a hospital in 1955, just after completing filming of The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart. At the Institute of Living in Hartford, CT, Gene received 27 shock treatments. She tried to leave (against the institution’s regulations) and was caught and returned, like a criminal. In 1957 she attempted suicide. Gene was in and out of mental institutions (some seeming to do more harm than good – especially with shock treatment not authorized by Gene) until 1959. In 1960 she re-married (having a messy and prolonged divorce and separation from Oleg Cassini in 1953), returned to acting in 1962 (Advise and Consent with Francot Tone), and settled in Texas.
Gene Tierney receives a Muse Award because she was a beautiful, poised personality onscreen who suffered from ‘nervous breakdowns,’ ‘bi-polar disorder,’ whatever it is called, in her private life. Her private life was lonely and difficult. She endured more pain from those she sought for help. She receives the award for persevering.
Muse Award: Gloria Grahame, for tenacity
It’s almost difficult to think of a noir without Gloria Grahame’s signature lisp in it. She appeared in dozens, usually in supporting roles, or the role of the gangster’s girl. In In A Lonely Place (co-starring Humphrey Bogart!) she, startingly, plays the heroine. While both Ida Lupino and Gene Tierney were not ideal role models in their personal lives (messy divorces, affairs, etc.), Gloria Grahame is certainly the most scandalous. In addition to being married 4 times, she had an affair with a step-son, whom she later married. She had several children from her various marriages. But, despite all of the bad publicity Gloria Grahame must have received, she kept acting. After In A Lonely Place, she could have demanded starring roles. She could have demanded to be the sympathetic character. She kept doing what she was doing: playing second fiddle. She knew she was great character, and if sometimes that meant being a little trampy on screen, she would do it. In 1953, she received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful in which she is neither the bad nor the beautiful. Kirk Douglas stars as ‘the bad,’ a movie producer who hinges the film, and Lana Turner is ‘the beautiful,’ Douglas’ old flame, an actress. Gloria Grahame isn’t even top billed. Behind Lana Turner was Kirk Douglas, then Water Pidgeon, then Dick Powell, then Barry Sullivan, then Gloria Grahame. She didn’t make the best life choices, but she stuck to her career, and was recognized for what she did well.
These ladies deserve some recognition, even if from me and not Awards or Academies.