Review: Movie Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Movie Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Directed by: Paul McGuigan | 105 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters, Jodie McNee, Stephen Graham, Joanna Brookes, Pete Lee-Wilson, Jay Villiers, Marina Bye, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Pandora Colin, Alexander Arnold

She’s barely ten minutes into “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), but that was long enough for Gloria Grahame to convince the electors of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to win her that year’s Best Actress Oscar. in a supporting role. Grahame had an erratic career; she was launched as femme fatale, the ultimate flirt. However, that raw sexy image also limited her possibilities. She couldn’t possibly be cast in the role of innocent girl next door, she simply didn’t have the right look for that. She was cut for the genre of film noir. Her most memorable roles were in films such as ‘Crossfire’ (1947), ‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) and ‘The Big Heat’ (1953). But as the film noir peaked, it became increasingly difficult for Grahame to find suitable roles. That’s how she did her best in ‘Oklahoma!’ (1955), but the public preferred not to see her in a musical. Her star, once shining so bright, fell into oblivion. However, thanks to her illustrious private life – she married a total of four times, including her former stepson Anthony Ray, ten years after she divorced his father, director Nicholas Ray, who once caught the two in bed when Anthony was just thirteen years old. ! – she remained the subject of conversation. She continued to act until her death in 1981, although she was no longer seen in major productions.

The British film ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ (2017) by the Scottish director Paul McGuigan (‘Lucky Number Slevin’, 2006) is about the last years of Gloria Grahame’s life. The story is based on the memoir written by actor Peter Turner in 1986. Turner (Jamie Bell) meets Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in 1979 London where she settled down to play a part in a West End theater production. Turner, himself an actor of modest stature, is immediately impressed by the almost thirty years older but still attractive diva of yesteryear. Grahame enjoys Turner’s attention and the two begin an affair. He introduces her to his family in Liverpool—mother Bella (the ever-excellent Julie Walters), dad Joe senior (Kenneth Cranham), and older brother Joe junior (Stephen Graham)—and even temporarily lives with her in apartments in New York and Los Angeles. angeles. But the relationship breaks down and the paths separate between the two. However, Turner always remembers Grahame and one day in 1981 he gets a call from his old lover; she’s back in the UK for a play and asks to stay with Peter and his family in Liverpool. The once grande dame turns out to be seriously ill, but refuses to admit to herself that her end is near. She is well cared for in the warm nest of the Turners, but as soon as Peter realizes the seriousness of the illness, he has a hard time accepting that he has to let go of his great love.

In terms of atmosphere, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is very reminiscent of films such as ‘Me and Orson Welles’ (2009) and ‘My Week with Marilyn’ (2011). It also revolves around a relationship (romantic or friendly) between a (troubled) classic film star and a relatively unknown outsider. And all three films have a nostalgic atmosphere and tempo to match. McGuigan chooses to spice up his film by playing with time; the film begins with Gloria’s request for Peter to take her into the family home, and from there the story jumps back and forth in time. The strongest picks up on this tactic in the scene where the relationship is on the rocks. We see this scene twice, first from Peter’s perspective, later from Gloria’s point of view. ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ relies heavily on the acting of Bening and Bell, who both play fine roles. Bening is of course the most eye-catching as Gloria; although she doesn’t necessarily resemble Grahame, she manages to imitate her mannerisms and distinctive voice aptly. Grahame was quite the drama queen (her plastic surgeon’s frequent pout only reinforces that), but also radiated an enormous life force. Her more controversial side is touched upon only once, in a conversation with a tiny Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (also an actress) and Frances Barber as his cynical sister Joy. Bell is the one we sympathize with as viewers; his growing fascination with Gloria, his incomprehension when she suddenly breaks up, his worry and despair when he discovers she is seriously ill. And when the film gets more melodramatic towards the end, it balances things out.

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ doesn’t blow viewers away with a thrilling film adaptation of Gloria Grahame’s final years, nor does it give us new insights into the scandal-shaded life of this forgotten film diva. This modestly set-up drama is rock solid, sometimes even boring, but thanks to strong acting by Bening, Bell and Walters, it easily holds the attention. Bening may play the more ‘flashy’ role, but it’s Bell who manages to take care of the emotional involvement.

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