Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (R) ★★★

Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame and Jamie Bell as Peter Turner Photo by Susie Allnutt, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Brilliant Acting Jolts Life into this Lack Luster Script

With a setting of 1979 through 1981, in England, NY, and L.A., this slice-of-life film is an eye opener into the world of an aging female star, her young lover, and the choices she makes when faced with a life-threatening disease.

Annette Bening fans will rejoice when they view the ultra-talented actress as Gloria Grahame, the Academy Award winning 40s and 50s black and white film star known for her roles as the sultry temptress. Grahame, similar in alluring looks and mannerisms—especially her little girl whisper voice—to Marilyn Monroe, gives Bening a role of a lifetime. She is the reason to see the film.

Gloria Grahame film star of the 40s and 50s

Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot (2000) fame gives a riveting performance as Peter Turner, the aspiring Liverpool actor that is much younger (28 years younger, to be exact) than Grahame, whom he falls madly in love with. The film is based on Turner’s popular memoir of the same name that was published in 1986.

Beginning in a Liverpool boarding house, an aging Grahame is trying to find acting work that would be denied her in the States, especially Hollywood. She sees her cute neighbor and strikes up a whispery/breathy conversation. Grahame: “You’re the next door guy, right?” Turner: “That makes you the girl next door.” Grahame: “I need a partner for my dance class; if you come into my room and hustle with me, I’ll make you a drink.” Turner: “If you fix me a drink, I’ll clean your bathroom.”

Next, we are treated to a montage of Saturday Night Fever songs while viewing Turner’s Billy Elliot moves ending with John Travolta’s classic splits. It’s a fun, energetic scene with plenty of flirting, setting the tone perfectly for their romantic connection.

We learn of Grahame’s life through snippets, which are too thin to gain the full story. Here’s the scoop on her career: she earned a memorable scene as Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life (1944), starred in In a Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart, Sudden Fear (1952) together with Joan Crawford, and finally with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) being her claim to fame by winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. When Technicolor replaced the silver screen, Grahame’s career took a nosedive. She had a bad reputation for being difficult to work with, she unnecessarily altered her looks through plastic surgery, and possibly the worst blow to her career was the disclosure by husband number two Nicholas Ray, that she and her stepson Anthony Ray were intimate when he was only thirteen years old. Although Grahame did marry Anthony ten years later, making him husband number four. A troubled past, that’s for sure.

Jimmy Stewart and Gloria Grahame in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The film moves quickly from scene to scene and it does mirror Grahame’s life as a film star, as director Paul McGuigan intended. He wanted many of the scenes to feel theatrical with interesting transitions. One minute you’re on one set, and the next minute, a character walks through a door to another setting, as in Liverpool to the beach in L.A. I must admit, it’s a very cool concept on paper, but I’m not sure it transferred well on screen. At times it became too confusing, especially since the story was told through flashbacks—and sadly, not enough flashbacks to truly know the characters well.

Photo Still of Gloria Grahame (Violet) “It’s a Wonderful Life”

In an awkward attempt to air Grahame’s dirty laundry to viewers, we are introduced to her acting teacher mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) and her killjoy sister Joy (Frances Barber) at Grahame’s beachside cottage. The conversation is in front of Turner, which focuses on Grahame’s lack of discipline in studying Shakespeare and that it was too bad she was in the shadow of Marilyn Monroe. In addition, Turner is told about the bedroom incident with Anthony Ray at thirteen years old as a warning to him. This strange scene doesn’t work, other than Turner saying, “Gloria just oozes tragic romance,” which incidentally is where the couple’s relationship is heading.

Jamie Bell as Peter Turner and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame Photo by Susie Allnutt, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Cinematically, I did appreciate the fantastic camera work in the Malibu scenes. These scenes were completed by a technique used in film noirs called back projection, the addition created a pleasing softened tone and nostalgic feel.

 The Bottom Line: Bening’s incredible performance grows deeper as Grahame’s situation grows in difficulty; it’s too bad the narrative didn’t provide the insight we need as viewers to fully understand this tragic Hollywood story.

 Cast: Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner Jr), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner)

Credits: Director Paul McGuigan, Writer (based on the memoir by) Peter Turner, Writer Matt Greenhalgh

Studio: Sony Pictures Classic

Run Time: 106 minutes

Sarah Knight Adamson© January 8, 2018