Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Paul McGuigan, director
Matt Greenhalgh, script based on Peter Turner’s memoir
Starring: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Julie Walters (Bella Turner)
Peter Turner was a young actor on the rise in London when he fell in love with Gloria Grahame, a glamorous Hollywood actress, whose career was on the skids. He was 26 and she was 54 when they met in 1978 but that didn’t matter to either of them. Their passionate on-and-off affair fueled them for the next three years until she died. Turner’s memoir of their times together, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is the subject of a new film starring Annette Bening as Grahame and Jamie Bell as Turner. Bening is superb in the film and its release will revive interest in the career of Gloria Grahame, one of Hollywood’s great cult figures.
Gloria Grahame was never a big star but she was memorable in a handful of films and, for a time, looked like she was one break away from ascending to top of A-list actresses. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, a film about Hollywood that captured Grahame’s screen persona. Always tough but with more than a hint of tenderness beneath her exterior, she was indisputably beautiful and seemed capable of doing anything that might appeal to her flighty imagination. Her greatest role was as the neighbour providing an alibi to a troubled genius scriptwriter played by Humphrey Bogart in the noir classic In a Lonely Place. Bogart’s character Dix Steele says of her, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” That’s Grahame.
Nick Ray, who directed her In a Lonely Place and made James Dean a star in Rebel Without a Cause married Grahame only to find her in bed with his 13-year-old son Tony a few years later. The scandal didn’t kill her career but it put an end to any possibility that she would rival Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe as a Fifties sex icon. By the late ‘70s, Grahame’s career was reduced to occasional character roles in films like Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard—ironically about her former boss at RKO, Howard Hughes—and working in regional theatres playing parts like the notorious Sadie Thompson in a revival of Maugham’s Rain.
Annette Bening is the right age to play Grahame and she imparts the role with the correct mixture of gravitas, pride and sexiness. She wants you to know that her character is a trouper who gave as good as she got and isn’t willing to descend into self-pity. When prodded by Bell’s Turner, she’ll recall details about her friendship with Bogie and Bacall and some of the glorious times back in Fifties Hollywood but you can see that this is one faded beauty who doesn’t want to play Blanche du Bois in her real life. Her only delusion is a belief in her indestructibility, which only passes when her diagnosis of cancer is made painfully clear.
Jamie Bell, most famous for originating the part of Billy Elliot, is fine as Turner. Not surprisingly, he’s best in an early scene where he teaches Grahame how to disco dance. Director Paul McGuigan and scriptwriter Matt Greenhalgh have correctly included many scenes with Turner’s family in Liverpool, who help to take care of Grahame in her final week in England. Their scenes are natural, emotional, painful and funny. Julie Walters is wonderful as Turner’s mother and Grahame’s friend Bella. Equally good is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Grahame’s mother in one key scene.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool isn’t a great film but it does feature a stunning performance by Annette Bening. Will she win an Oscar? As another Liverpudlian Ringo Starr once sang, “You can never tell.”
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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