You may or may not know Gloria Grahame, the actress whose sultry good looks made her a natural fit for the “bad girl” in the film noir movies of the forties and fifties. She was twice nominated for an Academy Award and won the Oscar for her work in The Bad and the Beautiful
. In portraying her, Annette Bening delivers a riveting performance as a faded film star living out her last success, her last love affair, and her last days.
The film is based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the young actor who became her lover and then, two years later, found himself torn between respecting Grahame’s wish to keep her illness secret and his mother’s insistence that Gloria needed to be with her own family before it was too late to say good-bye.
The film opens in a London dressing room, where Grahame is putting on her make up, preparing to go on stage. It is 1979, and she is starring as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie. She rises, puts on the flowery house dress that is her costume, checks herself in the mirror, then suddenly crumples to the floor, clutching at the pain that will finally kill her.
The previews of this film looked so dark that I was reluctant to see it. As it turns out, the director Paul McGuigan moves deftly between dark and light, present and past and back again. A series of subtle edits take us from Liverpool to London, Hollywood, New York, and then back to Liverpool. My trust in Annette Bening paid off; she chooses excellent material and never fails to deliver, no matter what the role. To my mind, Hollywood has never fully appreciated Bening. (I still don’t understand why the Academy didn’t give her the Best Actress Oscar for her wickedly fine performance as Julia in Being Julia.)
Bell and Bening
Peter Turner is played by Jamie Bell, best remembered by most of us as Billy Elliott, the boy who had to dance. Here he is all grown up, with the same odd face and burning intensity that he mostly keeps under lock and key. In a wonderful scene where Grahame and Peter first meet, she asks him if he’s seen the movie Saturday Night Fever
. He has seen it—three times.
“So you like disco dancing?”
“I like drunk dancing,” he says.
She offers to make him a drink in exchange for a dance—she needs a partner for her dance class. She leaves the door to her place open and he walks in. She turns up the music—”Boogie Oogie Oogie”—and they start moving. Annette Bening can dance, yes. But Jamie Bell takes disco dancing to a whole other level, going at it with the same ferocity we saw in Billy Elliott.
In an ironic bit of casting, Julie Walters, who played Billy’s teacher in Billy Elliott, plays his mother in this film. She is the heart and soul of a family that loves Peter and takes Gloria in as one of their own. She acts as caretaker when Gloria’s illness is unraveling her will to keep the truth at bay.
For the most part, I was completely immersed in the character Annette Bening was playing. But toward the end, when we see the same scene played from a different viewpoint, I pulled back and simply admired an actor who is a master of her craft. I was amazed at Bening’s transformations; at times she’s a glamorous and supremely confident movie star, then she strips herself bare to reveal a woman who is frail, aging, afraid.
Annette Bening at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association press conference for the movie “Mrs. Harris.” Photo by: Yoram Kahana_Shooting Star.
You will need to take the whole ride to understand the full import of the film’s title, but it is well worth the journey. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is engaging, entertaining, and unexpectedly moving. In recording his memories of Gloria Grahame, Peter Turner has given us a loving tribute to the woman he loved. In the end, he is the one person who knows her best, and understands how a star wants to make her exit.