Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool Review
She was an icon, a silver screen goddess who was once Hollywood royalty but long forgotten by the industry which once held in high regard. He was a working class boy from Liverpool struggling to make it as an actor. Their worlds collided and a romance was born. It sounds like a perfect idea for a movie, an epic sweeping romance. The truth is that this actually happened and it was far less glamorous than one may be led to believe.
It’s 1979, and Gloria Grahame (expertly played by Annette Bening) is trying to make a living out of theatre, renting a room in a house in North London. Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is also a lodger in the same house and is first introduced to Gloria when he comes across her practicing her voice exercises. “Who’s that?” He asks his landlady. “'Everybody's heard of Gloria Grahame. She's been in every Hollywood film. She always played a tart.'”
It’s true, Grahame was the "bad girl" in many films, the kind of girl that was trouble. She starred in A Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Big Heat (1953), oozing sex appeal and flirting not only with her co-stars but the camera as well. We discover that the industry has treated her badly, film stars have a brief life span, and female stars have an even briefer life span than the male counterparts. The sad reality is that this is still very much the case in Hollywood, once an actress has past her sell by date she is more than often cast out of the industry and left to fend for herself.
Gloria and Peter start a relationship despite their age gap (he’s twenty-eight and she fifty-five) and she even takes her young lover to America. In a touching scene he confesses a secret to her, that he has date both boys and girls in the past. Gloria is far from shocked, “So have I.” She declares. They seem right for one and other, both need each other. She requires him to adore her and shower her with compliments, and we get the impression that Peter is a little bit of a Mummy’s boy. However, something comes between them, something that Gloria is afraid to reveal to Peter until it’s far too late.
The film starts two years after Gloria and Peter have met, they have parted ways and out of the blue he gets a phone call saying she wants to come visit him in Liverpool and stay his his family’s home until she recovers. She arrives to the house with Peter’s mother (Julie Walters on top form). The supporting cast is very strong here and no one is miscast or underused. Vanessa Redgrave is in a brief scene as Gloria’s mother, who compares the actress to Marilyn Monroe, another under-appreciated and mistreated by Hollywood.
However, the film is very much Bening and Bell’s. They have very strong chemistry together and they present the relationship between Gloria and Peter as more than just a fling, it’s something deeper and more mature than that. The scene where the two of them dance together (Bell has still got the moves everyone) after discussing Saturday Night Fever, is beautiful and tender without being too sickly sweet. It does, occasionally, suffer in places from budget limitations, the California and New York scenes don’t look overly convincing, there’s a studio artifice to them, but even when the scenes look a little off and flat in their mise-en-scène the two main actors manage to keep the action going.
It is a shame that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool came out this year when we’ve already had such an abundance of great films, I have a feeling it will get forgotten about when it comes around to the awards season but it’s a film with heart and soul, and Bening is well overdue the best actress Oscar. This is certainly a role which she truly embraces, she presents Gloria as a complex woman who was flirty, vulnerable, feisty, strong and weak. Grahame was certainly larger than life and Bening’s portrayal feels authentic and convincing.
As Gloria Grahame so accurately put it, “I don’t think I understood Hollywood.” It may have not understood her either, but McGuigan has managed to present Grahame in such a way that we understand her, he has successfully captured the complexities that make up a person’s personality and identity. At the end of the day, the movie star lives way beyond on after the credits have finished rolling, in life there’s no sequels, just the final wrap, and then fade to black.