*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Middleburg Film Festival.*
As the era of the classic movie stars comes to a close in Internet celebrities or whatever, our fascination with the romantic lives of those Golden Age stars is endless. The latest, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, focuses on the brief romance between Oscar winner Gloria Grahame, and her young lover Peter Turner, from whose memoir the film has been adapted. Grahame, best known for her role as Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life and for her award-winning performance in The Bad and the Beautiful, is the perfect example of how we shouldn’t assume every celebrity’s life is exciting, because hers wasn’t, and the film struggles to compensate.
What makes Grahame’s story eminently watchable, and even fascinating in spurts, is the magnetic performance by Annette Bening, who always seems to shine right around awards season. If there are classic old school stars left, Bening is certainly one of them, and she tackles the role of Graham like she was always meant for it. When we first meet Grahame she’s in her dressing room before a show, meticulously applying her makeup, working on her diction…, like someone who has done this thousands of times before. But just before she’s to go on stage, she collapses and is rushed away. Grahame had been a huge star in the black & white era, not so much with the move to color. It’s 1979 and now she lives in a tiny London flat, which is where she first meets Peter (Jamie Bell), a struggling actor who stays next door. “She always played the tart” the landlord says as a means of introducing her to him. What’s funny is that Grahame still seems to be playing that role, flirting with the much-younger Peter shamelessly in their first encounter.
But it’s now 1981, and when we see them in that context things are very different. She’s arrived at his home, where he lives with his mother (Julie Walters), father (Kenneth Cranham), and brother (Stephen Graham) looking very sickly. She wants to stay with them and recover, with her and Peter in denial about the seriousness of her illness. The film leaps back and forth between 1979 and 1981, reflecting back on their relationship which looked a lot like love, but was perhaps more of a performance for them both. Grahame had been through multiple marriages, and a scandal in which she was accused of having an affair with her 13-year-old stepson. That ended in disaster, the utter destruction of her career, and psychological therapy. All of that baggage crowds the room whenever Peter is there, and the clueless young man is often at a loss when she suddenly stops acting like a breathless teenager and turns ugly.
There is affection and love there, though. Clearly they care for one another, and director Peter McGuigan luxuriates in their happy moments. Oftentimes these blissful memories bleed over from scene to scene, literally, as if we are walking through Peter’s daydreams, creating quite the surreal effect. But far too often the screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh fails to make Grahame’s story unique, especially once her sordid past has been revealed and promptly papered over. Whatever her issues were, Grahame lived a life far too exciting for any film to try and gloss it over it. Bening gives another wonderfully complex performance, depicting Grahame as a woman stuck playing a role because her reality is too tough to endure. She does Grahame justice, but Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is merely watchable when it could have been so much more.