Directed by: Paul McGuigan/2017
In the late 1970’s, Academy Award winning actress Gloria Grahame was toiling away on the stage in relative obscurity compared to when she was appearing regularly in films. Having had a big supporting part in It’s A Wonderful Life, as the boy-crazy Violet Bick, things were looking up before her contract was sold by MGM to RKO Studios. It is there that she began appear in several film noir pictures and she eventually was nominated for her role in the film Crossfire (1947) before eventually winning Best Supporting Actress for her 9 minutes of screen-time in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Following the mid-1950’s Grahame found herself returning to the stage full time with occasional appearances on television or in small roles in modestly released films.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool begins Gloria’s (Annette Bening-20th Century Women, Rules Don’t Apply) story towards the last 3 years of her life before her death in 1981 to Peritonitis and Breast Cancer. It was during this period that the film focuses on her romantic relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell-Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four (2015)), a fellow actor who was living in the same apartment building as Grahame. Striking up a friendship that included Peter serving as her dance partner, Gloria still projects herself as a woman at the top of her career during Hollywood’s golden age, rather than that of a struggling actress who still desires to play a teenage Juliette on stage at the age of 54.
Much of the film is captured in the daily dialogue between Gloria and Peter with the film jumping around in time to show vignettes of their time together, and sometimes their time apart from one another. By the end, we get a strong sense of the importance of this relationship to both of them, even as we watch them sometimes seek to sabotage the relationship for various reasons. The film also seeks to anchor itself to the music of Elvis Costello whose song “Pump it up” kicks things off in high gear, while a new original tune written for the film closes it all out.
Age might be one of the biggest reasons for tension in the relationship, especially from Gloria’s family in California. Their view of her is obviously soured having watched her get married four times, including marrying the son of one of her former husbands (the son was from his previous marriage), with the rumor being that they had started a romantic relationship when he was just thirteen years old, leading to her divorce with his dad. Later, when they got married and had two children together, they never escaped the rumors and scandal of it all. When Gloria brings home Peter, her family simply seems him as just another man who is decades younger than her, following her around for her amusement. They aren’t ready to buy into the notion that this is true love. They know Gloria’s patterns, and this one fits it to a tee.
Peter’s family, however, are much more practical about his relationship with Gloria. His parents had grown up watching Gloria in films and were quite floored when their son brought her home one day to meet them. But eventually her celebrity fades in their eyes and they simply treat her like anyone else. While this might seem a blow to her grandiose persona, it is their willingness to treat her “normally”, instead of catering to the side of her that is used to being pandered to, that leads her to want to spend her final days in Liverpool with them, and Peter. Never acknowledging that her cancer had returned, Gloria finds the elusive love and acceptance she has craved, while never softening who she is.
Annette Bening continues to tackle great roles, and in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, she is again digging deep and delivering an incredible performance. Annette Bening embodies Gloria Grahame in every aspect of this role, and has more than enough research put in to play a woman who can name drop the biggest names in Hollywood having been a major player herself, in addition to being with Warren Beatty the past 25-plus years.
Jamie Bell is equally up for the task of holding his own alongside someone as pedigreed as Bening. Bell continues to demonstrate that he wasn’t just a good child actor, as so many want to remember him as for his role in Billy Elliot. He is showing that he has the chops to take on much more. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool should be a film that opens up many doors for him to continue to grow and perfect his craft, as it allows him to simultaneous be a romantic leading man, explore some dramatic range, and infuse a little bit of humor. His big gesture towards the end of the film, encapsulates all three of these aspects to his character, and makes the best case as to why Bell needs more doors open to him as an actor.
In this film, the two leads are excellent, elevating the occasionally uneven script. The chemistry of Bening and Bell makes it all work, as lesser actors would too easily trip over the line between creating a tragically sappy romantic film, and overly serious bio-pic. Instead, Bening and Bell bring a warmth and humor to each encounter they share on the screen that keeps us hooked until the final credits roll. They don’t seek to romanticize the real life characters that they are playing, as much as ground their portrayal of them in a manner that demonstrates the complexities that existed in their very unique and unconventional relationship.