Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is as sad and awkward as its title. Annette Bening plays the star in question, Gloria Grahame, the impudent minx who held her own against Humphrey Bogart in then-husband Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and took a face full of boiling water from boyfriend-thug Lee Marvin in The Big Heat — before her sudden and ignominious plunge from the A-list. The movie depicts Grahame’s grim final act. During a 1981 stint on the London stage in The Glass Menagerie, the 58-year-old Grahame travels to Liverpool to visit the family of her ex-boyfriend, the decades-younger actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and stays … and stays … and stays, her bed becoming her deathbed. It’s like the Kaufman-Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner if the man had terminal cancer. And if it wasn’t a comedy.
The frequent flashbacks give Bening something to play besides denial and dementia. When Grahame meets Peter at an upscale London boarding house, Bening makes the actress ostentatiously girlish, a whirligig cartoon. Her voice is high and breathy and beckoning: She seems to be leaning forward even as she waltzes away from him to turn on a phonograph. Watch Bening’s shining face in the weirdly giddy bit when Grahame and Turner go to Alien on their first date and she laughs out loud when the little doohickey busts out of John Hurt’s chest. (After the movie, Grahame says the “small things that pop out of your legs” — i.e., her kids — are as hard to control.) The best scene features Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber as Grahame’s mother and sister, the former feeding Grahame’s cheerful mania, the latter sourly bringing her sister down to earth — interfering with the willed obliviousness that helped Grahame maintain a semblance of balance.It’s a thrill to see Bening in juicy parts like this, and the cast is everything you (and Bening) could hope for. A particular delight is Julie Walters, who makes Peter’s mum both deeply compassionate and hardheaded — so grounded that I kept thinking I’d like someone like her attending to me on my deathbed.) But Bening can’t supply what isn’t in the script. You have to pick up a biography to learn about Grahame’s four violent marriages — and how she bedded Ray’s son when the boy was 14 years old. (Her later marriage to “Nick Jr.” put the kibosh on her Hollywood career and lost her custody of the kids from her third marriage, to the abusive Cy Howard.) Seen through the eyes of Turner, Grahame is either maddeningly opaque or there’s no there there.
The director, Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein), has plainly prevailed upon the production designer Eve Stewart to elevate the mood with color, especially purples and pinks. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool isn’t visually drab, only conceptually. As a critic who often complains about biopics diverging too radically from the facts, I’m chagrined to find myself wishing the filmmakers had taken more liberties with Turner’s brief memoir. The book makes for an odd and melancholy coda to a crazy-volatile life, but the coda isn’t a microcosm for that life or even a particularly good prism through which to view Grahame’s rise and fall. As you watch Grahame suffer and act out and pretend her cancer is a passing stomach ailment, you want to know how and why she got to Liverpool, not how she’ll pass the time trying to forestall the inevitable as her organs shut down. The story is too bounded, like a theater piece. Even the title — uttered in the book by a man in a pub — supplies the wrong emphasis. On this side of the pond, Liverpool is associated with the Beatles, and what could be a hipper place to die than that?What an astounding actress Annette Bening is. And she’s at her very best in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool playing Gloria Grahame, a screen siren of the 1940s and 1950s. Here, however, we pick up with the actress during her last years, from 1979 to 1981, when she died of breast cancer at the age of 57. Instead of hitting all the familiar beats – fading bombshell desperately holding on to her past glory – Bening brings Graham to thrilling life as the complicated woman she was till the end. Grahame made her mark playing bad girls in such film noir classics as The Big Heat, Human Desire, Crossfire and In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart; she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Rattled by scandal – she married her stepson Anthony Ray, who was 13 when their relationship began – the four-times divorced mother of four fled to England. It was there, while performing on stage in the late Seventies that Grahame met Peter Turner, a younger actor who saw her through her final days after the former starlet refused treatment for cancer.
It’s her relationship with Turner, played by the terrific Jamie Bell, that constitutes the core of the film, based on Turner’s 1986 memoir about his time with the actress in the Liverpool row house of his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham). The cancer aspect of the story follows a traditional trajectory, which Scottish director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh seem unable to refresh. It’s the earlier section of the film that allows the performers to shine. Bening sees Grahame in her mid-Fifties as still possessed of talent, charm and kittenish sex appeal, enough to entice the three-decades-younger Turner; their scenes together have sexual chemistry to burn, especially when they disco dance to “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” (Bening mixes it up on the dance floor with the big-screen Billy Elliot himself!)
McGuigan meshes past and present by having Turner in Liverpool one minute and then striding seconds later into his lady friend’s Manhattan apartment or her L.A. trailer by the ocean – which is where he meets her British mother (a superb Vanessa Redgrave) and sharp-tongued sister (Frances Barber). Grahame doesn’t talk much about her Hollywood days, except to mention that Bogart taught the invaluable lesson of letting the camera come to her. (Bening mastered that art long ago, having received her first Oscar nomination for 1990’s The Grifters – playing a man-trap role that would have suited Grahame to a tee.)
Still, the film by its very nature bogs down in moody solemnity once this former film-noir force of nature is reduced to being little more than a patient in the Turners’ Liverpool household. Through it all, Bening demonstrates again why she’s one of the best actresses in the business, digging deep to find the woman behind the sex symbol and refusing to settle for the superficial – there’s no suggestion of Grahame’s sexy pout, the result of surgery that gave her the so called “novocaine lip.” During the end credits, we see a clip of the real Grahame accepting her Oscar, grabbing hold of the statuette without breaking her stride and, in one of the shortest acceptance speeches ever, offering only a hasty “thank you.” The movie would be little more than an extended version of that moment if it weren’t for the actress playing her on screen. It’s a touching tribute to both their talents.