You don’t have to be a film buff to remember Gloria Grahame. We see her every Christmas, as Violet, the good-hearted Bedford Falls floozy in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
An Oscar winner in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” a “Girl who cain’t say no” in “Oklahoma!,” a bit player in “Melvin and Howard,” she was a talented character actress who cut a wide and memorable swath across Hollywood in her day.
But like all of us, life caught up with her, demand for her services dropped and she found herself sick and in need of comfort and care, far from home. And that was going to be a problem. As everybody knows, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”
Her final days make for a sad, downbeat movie based on a self-serving memoir by the man who, with his family, cared for her at the end. Peter Turner’s book of that title recounts taking Grahame in (she was on tour) when she fell ill in Liverpool in the early ’80s, and recalls a 1979 May-November romance between himself, a struggling young actor, and the scandalous Grahame, who as they used to put it so quaintly back then, “liked’em young.”
Jamie Bell plays Turner in the film, a man we meet when he re-connects with Grahame (Annette Bening) upon her return to the Liverpool stage. She’s all aflutter and nostalgic. But she’s not well.
“I just had gas is all.”
A little mothering by Peter’s mom (Julie Walters) is all it’ll take to set her right. But as Peter takes her home and puts away her things, he sees prescriptions and medical records. This isn’t just “gas.”
We’re taken back to their flirtatious meeting a couple of years before, when Peter was in his early 20s and the fiftysomething Grahame first turned her feminine wiles and girlish voice on this strapping young working class actor with limited prospects.
They court, visit her old movies at a cinema revival house and talk shop. Gloria wants to know how to get into the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whatever her screen persona, she wants to be taken seriously as an actress. She’s always wanted to try her hand at Juliet.
“You mean the Nurse, right?” is the worst thing he could have said. Accurate, but mean.
Peter is swept up in a Gloria’s little corner of the world, traveling to New York where they make themselves seen in the same restaurant Liza-with-a-Z haunts.
Hollywood means seeing how a four-times divorced fading star lives — well enough, but sans mansions and the finery of her peak earning power. Vanessa Redgrave plays Gloria’s indulgent mother. Her sister (Frances Barber) is the there to remind her of her failings, the scandal of taking up with one husband’s barely-teenage son, later marrying the kid.
But it’s in Liverpool, far from home, that Gloria feels the most special. When Peter first takes her out, a barman has to fill him in on her back story.
“Proper film star, she was. Won an Oscar, too, if memory serves.”
His mother, doting on her during her illness, is equally starstruck.
“You’re so bloody beautiful!”
“Well, I was.”
The film seems caught up in a scandalous affair that seems fairly mild by today’s standards. Peter confesses his omnivorous sexuality, inviting Gloria to admit to the same. The age difference? Eyebrow-raising, nothing more.
The real scandals that enveloped Grahame are closer to something ripped from today’s headlines, and just remind us how odd it is for any of us to act shocked at the predatory, indulgent kinkiness that has long been the currency of the movie business. Grahame derailed her career after allegedly having sex with a 13 year-old, won an Oscar for co-starring in a movie about a ruthless, manipulative user of a producer (Kirk Douglas) and spent much of her career playing tarts.
It’s chilling to recall how close Mira Sorvino came to impersonating Grahame’s almost childish sex-kitten voice and persona in her Oscar-winning turn for Woody Allen in “Mighty Aphrodite.”
Bell makes a sturdy, thoughtful foil suggesting more than a hint of bisexual about Peter. But what makes “Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is Bening’s performance, which is as one might expect is much more than mere impersonation. Having the same pointy chin as Grahame means that showing the real GG, in still photos and on the big screen, just makes it easier to believe this is how this aged starlet would have looked pushing 60. Bening gives her a hint of self-awareness, dignity and desperation. The great ones are always most worried about that next acting job, come health or high water.
Director Paul McGuigan’s sorry record on screen (“Lucky Number Slevin” was a low, “Wicker Park” a lower-low) partly explains why this picture doesn’t have the requisite highs that precede the lows. There’s never a giddy moment, never a hint of “My Favorite Year” nostalgia for her superstar past or in her recapture-my-youth-with-another-younger-man tale. Turner is seen having an affair with a woman who seems to be running from her shame rather than owning it.
So nothing in Bening’s spot-on interpretation can lift this glum, joyless film, even excepting the terminal illness hanging over it.
MPAA Rating:R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity
Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Cranham
Credits:Directed by Paul McGuigan, script by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir by Peter Turner. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:45