Film Review: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Reviewed by: Belle McIntyre
I will begin by a formal disclaimer: I believe that Annette Bening can do no wrong and is one of the more fascinatingly watchable actresses of our time. So the fact that her performance alone is reason enough to love this film should come as no surprise. However, there are quite a few other elements that come together to create a small window into a slice of the life of formerly famous, but now largely forgotten 1950’s film star, Gloria Grahame. Based on the book by Peter Turner about his affair with Graham when he was in his 20’s, and she in her 50’s, up until her death shortly after the affair had ended. We get compressed glimpses of her glory days, but they are really only snippets. What we do get is the current Gloria Graham in all of her humanity, older, insecure, audacious, vain, charming, demanding, charismatic, and alluring glory.
Grahame’s stage persona, pretty factually, mirrored her actual life. She played a wantonly sexy woman with irresistible charms, which for the most part, allowed her to have her way with impunity. There were plenty of questionable behaviors in her real life, which left behind a trail of damage and pain, most notably to her own family, ex-husbands, and lovers. However, we don’t get the feeling that she was conscious of the effects of her actions, merely heedlessly unaware or unconcerned with the past. During the period with which this film is concerned, the 1970’s, the pigeons have come home to roost and she is finding herself alone and isolated while still fully invested in her self image as a charismatic seductress of undiminished powers.
This is where the story begins, in a downscale London boarding house where she meets the aspiring 28-year old actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and immediately sets out to entice him. She accomplishes this in relatively short order with unbridled sexual attraction on both sides. After their relationship has solidified and he is living with her in Los Angeles, she receives the bad news of the return of her cancer. In her reluctance to acknowledge it, she forces a confrontation that ends with her driving Peter away without explanation. Peter returns to his home in Liverpool to lick his wounds and put his life back together. There is no communication between them until months later when Gloria blows into town and lands up on the doorstep of the dreary council flat where he lives with his noisy, somewhat uncouth, boisterous family. His mum, (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham) receive her as they would anyone who is a friend of their son, with surprising lack of deference. And when she asks if she can stay with them, to Peter’s shock and disbelief, they agree without questioning.
The clever technique used to connect the present to the past and back again, initially annoying and distracting, eventually becomes effective at filling in the background details of Gloria’s past, before and with Peter. It also manages to make somewhat plausible the details of Gloria’s ultimate demise and the little reconciliation she has the time to effect. It is finally a very sincere and heartfelt story, told with unvarnished honesty. The pervasive attention to detail in the production does not prettify the sets or the characters even as it occasionally threatens to upstage them (i.e. repeated shots of Gloria’s broken and chipped nail polish and wallpaper of unparalleled tackiness, to name a few of the more obvious ones).
As I wrote in the beginning, Annette Bening is a wonder in her completely unselfconscious embodiment of this complicated, flawed, slightly delusional, vulnerable, needy, and ever-so-human, being. Her lack of vanity as the aging Gloria, juxtaposed with the palimpsest of her golden period is an extraordinary balancing act that is thrilling to behold. The film belongs to her.