Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Wannabe actor meets faded star in romantic memoir
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2018)
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Cast: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters
British director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House, Wicker Park, Lucky Number Slevin) unearths and polishes a tiny nugget of Hollywood history in the melancholy romantic drama Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The film stars Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Peter Turner, the real-life figure on whose memoir this tale is based. Standing across from him, gazing into his eyes, is Annette Bening (Bugsy, American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right) as B-list Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame. Grahame’s late-in-life affair with Turner moves the narrative of this small-scale weeper.
The film gets underway in the early ’80s as the 57-year-old Grahame is in Lancaster, England performing in a regional stage show. She collapses backstage but refuses to go to the hospital. Instead, she insists on being taken to the home of one Peter Turner in working-class Liverpool. Turner’s family owns a rooming house, and it’s clear that they have a history with the American actress. While the family ministers to Grahame’s tenuous health, Peter’s mind free-floats back to the late ’70s. It was then that he first crossed paths with the faded Hollywood femme fatale (who headlined a string of film noir potboilers in the ’40s and ’50s). A wannabe actor himself, Peter is drawn to the charismatic Grahame. Though a good 30 years older than him, Grahame still radiates a palpable sexual appeal. Also, she has a taste for younger men, having caused a scandal years earlier by marrying and divorcing her young stepson, Anthony Ray.
Bell and Bening are front-and-center for the entire film and are almost solely responsible for its emotional impact. Bening is a masterful choice as the aged and insecure but still seductive starlet. She mirrors Grahame’s supple body movements with practiced ease. For a chunk of her career, Grahame was thought of as a second-string Marilyn Monroe—but she made a career out of playing the tarnished beauty with the sinuous sexual allure. It’s this mixture of erosion and glamour that Bening most strongly taps into. Underneath that is Grahame’s ingrained Hollywood sense of vanity—the idea that women are valued for their physical appearance and that any crack in that facade is a blow to career, ego and bank account. Any comment about age or appearance is likely to be met with an explosion of emotion. Even when the camera isn’t pointed at her, Grahame feels like she’s acting. At this point in her life, it’s become both a habit and a defense.
Bell, on the other hand, plays his character as guileless and straightforward. He’s attracted to Grahame and unapologetic about it—even when she doubts his genuineness. Maybe Turner’s memoir (also titled Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) plays up his sincerity. Or maybe it’s just that simple. In some sense director McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (who penned the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy) have an uphill battle here. This is a rather conventional and uncomplicated love story. May-December romances are nothing new, and there are elements to this story that—if enacted by an older man and a younger woman—would be troubling in today’s Hollywood atmosphere. Heck, Grahame’s affair with and later marriage to her 13-year-old stepson sounds like a virtual roadmap for current whipping-boy Woody Allen. The filmmakers could have tackled these thorny concerns but choose not to. It’s not a blow against the film, more of a missed opportunity at deeper conversation. As it stands, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is an arrow-straight romance with an expected touch of tragedy at the end.
To mix up the simple narrative, McGuigan and Greenhalgh rely on gauzy flashbacks. Peter wanders in and out of these displaced chunks of memory as he struggles to come to grips with the now-ailing Grahame. The flashbacks come to a head in the film’s only truly revelatory moment, an exquisitely painful breakup scene glimpsed first though Peter’s eyes and then from Grahame’s perspective. It’s a shame the director and writer couldn’t have come up with more bits like this. As it stands, several of the flashbacks—a visit to Grahame’s trailer home in California, a trip to Manhattan—feel a bit overly designed. They’re stagey and artificial and feel like excerpts from a Broadway two-hander.
Although it could have benefitted from more dramatic conflict, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool deserves credit for sticking to its guns and not ginning up its narrative with false struggle and strife. It’s happy to serve out its time as a teary-eyed, tragic romance played out in the long shadows of Old Hollywood.