Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, 2017.
Directed by Paul McGuigan.
Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Frances Barber and Vanessa Redgrave.
When British actor, Peter Turner, receives an unexpected phone call, it tells him that his former lover, Oscar-winning Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, has collapsed in a hotel and is refusing medical care. He agrees to take her home to his family and the memories of their affair come flooding back – the love story of a younger man and a much older, previously famous woman. Based on a true story.
Gloria Grahame won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1952 for her performance in The Bad and The Beautiful. After a few more films, her career was on the slide and in 1981, she starred in a stage production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie the UK, the starting point for Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.
It’s based on the memoir of Peter Turner (played in the film by Jamie Bell), a Liverpudlian actor who’d had an affair with Grahame (Annette Bening) some years before. An age gap relationship which would have raised eyebrows at the time but which, for the two of them, was real and passionate. Now something of a faded star, it’s ironic that she’s in a Williams play, even if she’s closer in spirit to Blanche Dubois than any of his other characters.
The story of their relationship is told in a series of flashbacks alternated with the early 80s, as the illness which prompted that phone call to Peter turns out to be serious. McGuigan keeps us on our toes in the way that he moves the younger man from one setting to another – there’s a moment where he wanders down a set into his own past – almost as if there’s a portal taking him from one time zone to another. Despite that device, this is an unashamedly romantic film, with a moving and perceptive screenplay based on Turner’s book.
It’s also careful to depict the relationship from both perspectives: for her, the appeal of a younger man but, as the more mature of the two, the desire to protect him from being hurt by the truth. And, for him, head over heels in love and trying desperately to ignore the realities of their situation and her health. An emotional and affecting story, yes, but one that never veers close to being sentimental or emotionally manipulating the audience.
With its romantic tone and excellent two leads, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool echoes Grahame’s heyday in the 50s, even though it’s mainly set some time later. Her clothes and make up seem stuck in the same decade, but that just strengthens her appeal. Yet, despite its qualities, there’s a large question mark hanging over film. Who will go to see it? It hasn’t been crass enough to aim itself slap bang at the grey market, even though it’s hard to imagine a younger audience being tempted to part with its cash. The selling point is Bening herself: her reputation for honest, transparent acting should stand the movie in good stead so that it at least makes something approaching the impact it deserves.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.