“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a touching, true story of a troubled film actress in her final years. Annette Bening plays Gloria Grahame, who played the sultry Violet Bick in “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the similarly lusty character Ado Annie, the girl who “can’t say no,” in “Oklahoma.” Bening plays Grahame in her 50s as a stage actress in England who falls in love with a supportive man 30 years her junior.
While this story is a specific and real one based on actual events, Bening’s portrayal could be of anyone in denial about age and time. The volume of the drama is intensified since she is an actress playing a very vulnerable and wounded woman who is also facing a very serious, life-threatening illness.
Bening’s performance is assured and detailed; the character defaults to a childish sexpot mode and to see her go there automatically is fascinating, because she skillfully creates these cracks in the façade that are amazing and tragic to witness. It is another powerful performance from Bening, and her face alone makes you realize how seldom women are portrayed simply at that age.
There is a poignancy to watching an actress taking on a role that never would have been offered to the actress she is portraying, and it’s hard to imagine insecure Grahame taking on a role with this much honesty. It is fitting, then, that the story begins with Gloria in her dressing room, making up her face, only to collapse on the floor in pain. She calls her ex-boyfriend Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), because all she wants in her time of need is to be with him and his family at his parents’ home.
From here, the film fills in the details of their past together, and reasons why Gloria might not want to be with her own family. After her major film hits in the 1940s and ‘50s, and even winning a Best Actress Academy Award, Grahame’s onscreen persona as a sexpot dovetailed with her tumultuous personal life, and after three marriages, her fourth to her own stepson was a scandal too great for her career to bear. Her very hateful and bitter older sister brings up this tidbit at an ill-advised family dinner featuring the glorious Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother.
Both Bening and Bell give committed, beautiful performances. Their chemistry when they first meet is delightful; Bell is too young to recognize her, but their older landlady is in awe of the fact that a Hollywood movie star is living in her house. It seems like one of the strengths of their May-December relationship is that the young man is discovering her charms for the first time, and she is thrilled to be new to someone after a lifetime obsessing about her own desirability.
Positioning Bell’s Peter Turner within his own family is also very telling, as it highlights his own youth and adds a layer of pathos to Gloria’s feelings for him. She tells his mother that she wants her as her own mother, when in reality, they are almost the same age. When she is dying, Gloria wants to be taken care of only by Peter’s mother (played by Julie Walters), and it speaks to the brief moments of peace the relationship gave her.
This is an unusually moving film because it portrays an unusual relationship, and Bell makes an unexpectedly compelling romantic lead. He is wonderful, and more than up to the task of acting alongside Bening. Theirs is a singular and memorable romance.
This film works on the level of the story itself, but I also couldn’t help but think of Bening’s own career, especially her early role as a femme fatale in “The Grifters,” and the parallels to the career of Grahame, who also saw her greatest critical success as a film noir vixen.
There is a lot in this story about these women, the characters they play, the images they created and those that were projected onto their onscreen and offscreen lives. For Bening to now portray Grahame is meaningful and poetic.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is currently available to rent.