If you’ve never heard of Gloria Grahame, you’re not alone. Once a rising starlet in classic Hollywood, the Academy Award-winning actress saw her career fizzle out following some behind-the-scenes studio decisions and a tryst considered deplorable even by the inconsistent sexual standards of the day.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on the memoir of the same name, doesn’t touch on any of this in too much detail. Instead, the story focuses on the years 1979 to 1981, when Grahame got together with late-twentysomething Brit Peter Turner (who wrote the book) before dying of breast cancer at 57.
The movie version opens in 1981, with Grahame (Annette Bening) collapsing before she’s due to go on stage. She calls up Turner (Jamie Bell) to see if she can recover at his parents’ Liverpudlian home. It’s clear from their interactions that their romance did not end well, but his willingness to care for her shows there’s still something deep between them. From there, the story jumps back and forth among pivotal moments in their relationship, its dissolution following Grahame’s well-hidden cancer recurrence, and the inevitable outcome.
There’s no glamour here. Everything from the set decoration to the cinematography conveys a sense of faded glory. Biopics with nonlinear storylines can sometimes feel blasé by their nature, but director Paul McGuigan—best known for films like Lucky Number Slevin, Push, and Victor Frankenstein, oddly enough—uses the structure and his characters’ perspectives for some interesting reveals and melancholic exhibition. Given the movie’s by-the-book makeup, its first two acts tend to drag, but there’s legitimate pathos in the payoff, if you can make it that far.
It’s the acting that holds this thing together. Bening is phenomenal, almost unrecognizable in her demeanor. We see the spark and vitality hidden behind Grahame’s aging eyes, but also the layered insecurity she feels in her later years. Bell matches Bening’s output, showing his deep affection whether he’s dealing with Grahame’s instability or caring for her on what is essentially her death bed. Though most of us have never dated a movie star, we identify with Turner, and that’s largely due to the humanity Bell gives the character, and Grahame (who’s less forthcoming) by proximity.
Beyond its interpersonal focal point, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool somewhat accidentally finds itself exploring themes of contemporary sexual discourse. We see the gender flip on the usual May-December Hollywood romance, which isn’t wrong in and of itself, but can warrant an examination of power dynamics. This is hinted at in the film, but given the timing—Weinstein et al., the #MeToo movement—it’s an important point of note: In 1951, When Grahame was married to second husband Nicholas Ray, she reportedly had sex with her 13-year-old stepson Anthony Ray, who became her fourth husband in 1960. This raises a lot of questions that the film does not address.
Watch Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool without this knowledge, and you’ll have a somewhat straightforward, albeit atypical, story of the life, love, and death of a declining movie star. But with Grahame’s sordid past in mind, it’s impossible to extricate the film from either history or the issues swirling at its release date. The result is a movie that’s more troublesome than its cast and crew intended.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Director: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters
Theater: Uptown Theatre, starts Friday