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50 Greatest Screen Legends

     I was one of the lucky 1,800 chosen to vote in the American Film Institute's poll of 50 greatest screen legends, the winners unveiled in a recent NBC special. I have no quarrel with the 25 actors and 25 actresses who topped the poll, though there might have been at least one non-English speaker (Jean Gabin?) among the actors; and Sophia Loren, the only non-English speaking actress on the list, has made exactly one good film, Two Women (1961), in a lightweight, undistinguished career.

     Several of my votes, I guess, didn't stand a chance: Sterling Hayden, whose quirky, paranoid presence in any movie (Johnny Guitar, Dr. Strangelove, The Long Goodbye) guaranteed that it will be weird, off-kilter cinema; Divine, John Waters's 300-pound muse, the subterranean Liz Taylor. And the original ballot of 400 names excluded Elisha Cook, Jr., the all-time "fall guy," murdered a dozen terrible ways (The Big Sleep, Shane, etc.), and Vera Miles, who had her Roger Maris run between 1956 and 1962, appearing in four of the greatest films ever made: Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man and Psycho, John Ford's The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

     Someone else I adore who missed out in the voting: Gloria Grahame, the ultimate hard-luck dame of 1940s and 1950s "noir" melodrama (The Greatest Show on Earth, The Bad and the Beautiful) who fell desperately in love with Bogart's intellectual with a Maileresque violent streak in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, and was the cruel victim of psychopath Lee Marvin's raging cup of coffee in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. She had heart and guts and honesty, and a sympathetic intelligence; but men would rather have danced her back to their underlit flats than brought this kittenish babe home to mama.

     British critic Ian Cameron: "Perhaps Gloria Grahame was just a little too far out. . . to be a big star. She never lacked talent, but her looks were some way from the norm of conventional prettiness, with wide-open eyes and an upper lip that seemed a couple of sizes larger than the lower one. With this goes a small voice, short on consonants and usually Southern-accented."

     There's a marvelous double whammy of prime Grahame at the Brattle July 12, two "noir" Fritz Langs. The aforementioned classic, The Big Heat, is complemented by an very important revival (and a major 35mm restoration)of the smoldering Human Desire (1954), Lang's sleak Hollywood remake of Jean Renoir's 1938 La Bete Humaine, with Grahame as "the femme fetale."

     In Human Desire (what an illicit title for the Eisenhower '50s!), Grahame is doubly, triply cursed. She's been raped in the past as a 16-year-old by her livery-maid mother's boss. She's married now to a gravel-voiced, humorless hunk of meat (Broderick Crawford), who pimps her for the afternoon to that same boss to get his lost job back, then beats Gloria black-and-blue for her forced adulterous act. Then he makes her a culprit in murder. Our Gloria doesn't stand a chance in this mean, unfair world, though she is teased by a few good hours with an ex-Korean War soldier (Glenn Ford) making a go engineering trains.

     "We weren't meant to be happy," Gloria tells Glenn, offering the prototypal "noir" take on romance. "Now it's too late. It's always too late."

(June, 1999)


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