2017 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: Making a film about an Academy Award Winning Actress is a daunting task. Hollywood’s take on Hollywood can often read as an insider joke forced upon outsiders. At its most egregious, Hollywood has become synonymous with aggrandizing its own self, always looking for a chance to pat themselves on the back. Once that hurdle is cleared, one must strive to make a movie that satisfies historians, super-fans and may even entice a casual moviegoer to buy a ticket. In tackling the story of Academy Award Winning Actress Gloria Grahame, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” takes a very different point of view. It focuses in on Grahme’s time away from Hollywood and final love affair before her tragic end. It’s a beautiful and emotional film that takes a familiar biopic structure and manages to wring tears due to two strong leading performances.
Rather than concentrate on Grahame’s career, the film follows Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a struggling actor from a working-class British family in Liverpool. He comes across Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), a fallen Hollywood starlet who struggles to remain relevant years after her last hit. The two embark on a May-December romance that leads them all across the US and Great Britain. However, the film looks back on all these wonderful moments of bliss from Peter’s memory as he nurses Gloria through her cancer treatments. Accompanied by his strong-willed mother (an always welcome Julie Walters), Peter tries to do what’s best for Gloria. His fears for her well-being swirl around with his fond memories of their romance.
Saying “Annette Bening is amazing” is redundant. She’s always redundant. She also always fabulous, engrossing, entertaining and riveting. However, in Gloria Grahame, Bening returns to elements from earlier in her career that cemented her as a movie star. With her pitch-perfect high voice and flighty joie de vivre, Bening’s Gloria radiates with fun, sex appeal, and energy. Cast early in on many sexpots or seriocomic roles (“The Grifters,” “Mars Attacks”), Bening slips into Grahame like a glove. Bening predictively devours scenes with Gloria’s illness with her usual blend of commitment and power. Yet, it’s scenes that involve Gloria goading Peter into dancing disco where her performance truly works best. Annette Bening oozes charisma.
For as strong as Bening is, the real leader of the film belongs to Jamie Bell’s Peter Turner. Even more than that, he even outperforms Bening at times, emerging as the MVP of the film. Bell truly carries the film. In lesser hands, his role could have turned into a “My Week with Marilyn” esqe cypher. Yet, Peter comes across as a budding actor with dreams and ambitions, if not a whole lot of direction. His say “yes” to everything approach makes him a lively and exciting protagonist. However, just as easy as Bell turns on the charms in the lighter moments, the film excels as he struggles with Gloria’s illness. It’s a star turn that hopefully nets Jamie Bell more leading man roles.
With two powerhouse performances, how does the movie as a whole fail to soar? Director Paul McGuigan commands an interesting visual palette for a great deal of the film, save for some wonky green screen beach action. Yet, the true failing comes in what turns out to be a faithful adaptation of the source material’s structure. The film weaves in and out of different time periods with little transition or announcement. The first few times involve makeshift sets transporting the audience in one shot across multiple years. However, as both ends of the story meet near the end, the editing becomes rather choppy. What’s meant to underscore the melancholy drama at the heart of the film ends up cutting up an engrossing central love story.
It’s not easy to take on a figure such as Gloria Grahame. With a legendary Hollywood family tree across her four marriages that resembles something from the Carrie Fisher “Wishful Drinking” special, Grahame’s life seems rife with possible movies. Save for one scene with a fabulously out of place Vanessa Redgrave cameo, we get very little insight into Gloria’s personal life before Peter. However, keeping the film focused allows for the central romance to shine. While there could be more that goes into a Gloria Grahame film, as a May-December Hollywood weepie, “Film Stars Die in Liverpool” earns its Kleenex.