Grahame began her acting career in theatre, and in 1944 made her first film for MGM. Despite a featured role in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), MGM did not believe she had the potential for major success, and sold her contract to RKO Studios. Often cast in film noir projects, Grahame received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Crossfire (1947), and she won this award for her work in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). She achieved her highest profile with Sudden Fear (1952), Human Desire (1953), The Big Heat (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955), but her film career began to wane soon afterwards.
She returned to work on the stage, but continued to appear in films and television productions, usually in supporting roles. In 1974, Grahame was diagnosed with breast cancer. It went into remission less than a year later and Grahame returned to work. In 1980, the cancer returned but Grahame refused to accept the diagnosis or seek treatment. Choosing instead to continue working, she travelled to England to appear in a play. Her health, however, declined rapidly and she developed peritonitis after undergoing a procedure to remove fluid from her abdomen in September, 1981. She returned to New York City where she died in October, 1981.
Grahame was born Gloria Grahame Hallward in Los Angeles, California. She was raised a Methodist. Her father, Reginald Michael Bloxam Hallward, was an architect and author; her mother, Jeanne McDougall, who used the stage name Jean Grahame, was a British stage actress and acting teacher. The couple had an older daughter, Joy Hallward (1911–2003), an actress who married John Mitchum (the younger brother of actor Robert Mitchum). During Gloria's childhood and adolescence, her mother taught her acting. Grahame attended Hollywood High School before dropping out to pursue acting.
Grahame was signed to a contract with MGM Studios under her professional name after Louis B. Mayer saw her performing on Broadway for several years.
Grahame made her film debut in Blonde Fever (1944) and then scored one of her most widely praised roles as the flirtatious Violet Bick, saved from disgrace by George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). MGM was not able to develop her potential as a star and her contract was sold to RKO Studios in 1947.
Grahame was often featured in film noir pictures as a tarnished beauty with an irresistible sexual allure. During this time, she made films for several Hollywood studios. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Crossfire (1947).
Grahame starred with Humphrey Bogart in the film In a Lonely Place (1950), a performance for which she gained praise. Though today it is considered among her finest performances, it wasn't a box-office hit and Howard Hughes, owner of RKO Studios, admitted that he never saw it. When she asked to be loaned out for roles in Born Yesterday and A Place in the Sun, Hughes refused and instead made her do a supporting role in Macao. Despite only appearing for a little over nine minutes on screen, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in MGM's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), a record at the time for the shortest performance on screen to win an acting Oscar, which she held for 24 years before Beatrice Straight broke it in 1977.
Other memorable roles included the scheming Irene Neves in Sudden Fear (also 1952), the femme fatale Vicki Buckley in Human Desire (1953), and mob moll Debby Marsh in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) in which, in a horrifying off-screen scene, she is scarred by hot coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin's character. Graham appeared as wealthy seductress Harriet Lang in Stanley Kramer's Not as a Stranger (1955) starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, and Frank Sinatra.
Grahame's career began to wane after her performance in the musical film Oklahoma! (1955). Grahame, whom audiences were used to seeing as a film noir siren, was viewed by some critics to be miscast as an ignorant country lass in a wholesome musical, and the paralysis of her upper lip from plastic surgery altered her speech and appearance. Additionally, Grahame was rumored to have been difficult on the set of Oklahoma!, upstaging some of the cast and alienating her co-stars, which furthered her fall from grace in Hollywood. She began a slow return to the theater, and returned to films occasionally to play supporting roles, mostly in minor releases.
She also guest starred in television series, including an episode of the sci-fi series The Outer Limits. In the episode entitled "The Guests", Grahame spoofed her own career by playing a forgotten film star living in the past. She also appeared in an episode of The Fugitive ("The Homecoming", 1964) and an episode of Burke's Law ("Who Killed The Rabbit's Husband", 1965). She played small roles in TV miniseries such as Rich Man, Poor Man and Seventh Avenue.
The play The Time of Your Life was revived in March 17, 1972 at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles with Grahame, Henry Fonda, Richard Dreyfuss, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ron Thompson, Jane Alexander, Richard X. Slattery and Pepper Martin among the cast, with Edwin Sherin directing.
Over the course of her career, Grahame became increasingly concerned with her physical appearance. She was particularly concerned with the appearance of her upper lip which she felt was too thin and had ridges that were too deep. To remedy this, Grahame began stuffing cotton or wads of tissues between her lip and teeth to give the appearance of fullness which she felt gave her a sexier look. Several co-stars discovered this after filming kissing scenes with Grahame as the tissue or cotton would often transfer to their mouths. In the mid-1940s, Grahame began undergoing small cosmetic procedures on her lips and face. According to her niece, Vicky Mitchum, Grahame's obsession with her looks led her to undergo more cosmetic procedures that rendered her upper lip largely immobile because of nerve damage. Mitchum said, "Over the years, she [Grahame] carved herself up, trying to make herself into an image of beauty she felt should exist but didn't. Others saw her as a beautiful person but she never did, and crazy things spread from that."
Grahame was married four times and had four children. Her first marriage was to actor Stanley Clements in August 1945. They divorced in June 1948. The day after her divorce from Clements was finalized, Grahame married director Nicholas Ray. They had a son, Timothy, in November 1948. After several separations and reconciliations, Grahame and Ray divorced in 1952. Grahame's third marriage was to writer and television producer Cy Howard. They married in August 1954 and had a daughter, Marianna Paulette in 1956. Grahame filed for divorce from Howard in May 1957, citing mental cruelty. Their divorce was finalized in November 1957.
Grahame's fourth and final marriage was to actor Anthony "Tony" Ray, the son of her second husband Nicholas Ray and his first wife Jean Evans; Anthony Ray was her former stepson. Their relationship reportedly began when Tony Ray was 13 years old and Grahame was still married to his father (which effectively ended the marriage when Nicholas Ray caught the two in bed together). The two reconnected in 1958 and married in Tijuana, Mexico in May, 1960. The couple would go on to have two children: Anthony, Jr. (born 1963) and James (born 1965).
News of the marriage was kept private until 1962 when it was written about in the tabloids and the ensuing scandal damaged Grahame's reputation and affected her career. After learning of her marriage to Anthony Ray, Grahame's third husband, Cy Howard, attempted to gain sole custody of the couple's daughter, Marianna. Howard claimed Grahame was an unfit mother, and the two fought over custody of Marianna for years. The stress of the scandal, her waning career and her custody battle with Howard took its toll on Grahame and she had a nervous breakdown. She later underwent electroshock therapy in 1964. Despite the surrounding scandal, Grahame's marriage to Anthony Ray was her longest lasting union. They would later divorce in May 1974.
In March, 1974, Grahame was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent radiation treatment, changed her diet, stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, and also sought homeopathic remedies. In less than a year the cancer went into remission. The cancer returned in 1980, but Grahame refused to acknowledge her diagnosis or seek radiation treatment. Despite her failing health, Grahame continued working in stage productions in the United States and the United Kingdom, living for some time in Liverpool. While working in London in September 1981, she underwent treatment to remove excess fluid from her abdomen. During the procedure, the doctor accidentally punctured her bowel. She soon developed peritonitis and was hospitalized. After being notified of Grahame's illness, two of her children, Timothy and Paulette, traveled to London and decided to take her back to the United States.
On October 5, 1981, Grahame returned to the United States where she was admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. She died there a few hours later at the age of 57. Her remains were interred in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, Los Angeles.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Gloria Grahame has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6522 Hollywood Boulevard.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool based on a the final years of her life is due to be released in November 2017. In the film she is portrayed by Annette Bening.