Film Review: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

The title is better than the film: Despite all of Annette Bening’s verve and committed ability, this is an arty dud, and you come away knowing very little about its intriguing star subject.
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If ever there was a screen nonpareil, it was Gloria Grahame (1923-81), of the incessant pout and chipmunk voice. Sometimes known as the “Novocaine Blonde,” for the lip-altering, multitudinous plastic surgeries she went through in an impossible quest for facial perfection, she was a Los Angeles high-school dropout who went into acting early, first on Broadway and then Hollywood. She was signed at a very young age to an MGM contract, but the studio didn’t know what to make of her and she would not have a decent role until her breakthrough, as the town minx, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. That shot of her being dragged, protesting, off to the hoosegow would prove prophetic, as Grahame became one of the sultry queens of the film noir genre so popular in her youth. Crossfire, A Woman’s Secret, Macao, Sudden Fear, The Big Heat, Human Desire, Naked Alibi and Chandler followed, with splashy stops outside the dark genre like the coveted Ado Annie in Oklahoma and a circus artiste in DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. She is probably most remembered and respected today for her touching turn in Nicholas Ray’s revered Hollywood-looks-at-its-ugly-self-in-a-mirror epic, In a Lonely Place.

Her personal life was no less varied: She married four times, once to Ray (her second husband) and also to his son—her stepson—Tony Ray (her fourth and final husband), a  relationship that had begun when he was 13 and ended when Nicholas discovered them in bed together. This last marriage happened in 1960, but its scandalous nature kept it a secret for a couple of years, until a tabloid broke the story, by which time Grahame’s career, already on the wane, truly floundered. This is about when this movie comes in.

Yes, Grahame was a fascinating character, but you will learn little of the above in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, directed by Paul McGuigan and adapted by Matt Greenhaigh from a book with the same title by Peter Turner. Turner was Grahame’s final lover, also younger than she, and his tome is a slight, atmospheric but not very detailed memoir of their romance, the main fillip of which is provided not so much by the May-December age difference between the lovers but the unlikeliness of the gritty, working-class setting. McGuigan lavishes care on his settings, be they an idyllic, beachy Los Angeles, Grahame’s palatial Manhattan apartment, or especially Peter’s Liverpool home, which seems kitchen sink-ready to serve as the depressing set for Look Back in Anger. The central focus is always on the couple, but they aren’t made sufficiently interesting to hold your attention; McGuigan seems more concerned with pulling off skewed, time-shifting narrative effects, in which his actors open a door and literally step into not the next room but their pasts. It’s quite Pirandellian and very impressive…at first. But after a while you just wish he’d tell the story straight and provide a helluva lot more of it.

Grahame emerges as even more of a mystery than Garbo. Despite her turbulent life resume, you never get an idea of her inner workings or how she spends the many hours of each day that are unaccounted for, driving Peter crazy. One answer is, however, given, having to do with her ill heath and signaling an out-of-character secret gesture of self-renunciation that may have really happened but here feels rather as hoary as the last revival of Camille. The liberties taken with Grahame’s life, in defiance of the book, include her New York home—vast, sleekly terraced and ultra-chic 2017-style, which was exceedingly unlike the actual subsidized artists’ residence—cosy-comfy, yes; opulent, no—called Manhattan Plaza in this movie. The real tragedy of Grahame’s life was her not being able to get work, having outlived her moment. She was particularly on her uppers in these last years of her life, acting in stock companies in Liverpool and other far-flung towns, but you would never know it here. It’s more like noblesse oblige: She enjoys slumming with Peter’s blue-collar family.

Always best when playing tough, sassy broads, from her breakout film The Grifters as well as in Bugsy, Annette Bening is a neat spiritual and physical matchup to Grahame with her tip-tilted nose and sexy-pert mien. (Actual photos of Grahame are used to depict her in youth and you believe Bening could have been her.) She shares the knowing twinkle in the eye which originally set Grahame apart from all the other ingenues of her era and has a snappy 1940s-style wink to go with it. But she—who barely even mentions her glorious past or the personalities she hobnobbed with—and poor (but very gallant) Jamie Bell as Peter don’t have enough to do. After an inspired impromptu dance set to A Taste of Honey’s period-funky “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” when they first meet and bond, it all basically dries up. The conversations between them, which should be riveting, simply are not. The film dawdles all over the place and your connection to it wavers. Julie Walters as Peter’s careworn but compassionate mum is as ingratiating as can be, but she and the rest of his family are mere Liverpudlian window dressing. Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber also show up to briefly enliven things as Gloria’s old British ham of a mother and her catty-resentful sister.

McGuigan snaps back into attention for the tragedy of his film’s final passage, ladling on J. Ralph’s insistently morose music, as if the ghost of Max Steiner himself were whispering sappy instructions in his ear. He lavishly caps off his movie’s sad end by showing the 1952 Oscar presentation to Grahame for her supporting performance in The Bad and the Beautiful. What is meant to be elegiac and soul-stirring, especially to movie lovers, really backfires, for when Edmund Gwenn reads off the other nominees’ names, you realize that Jean Hagen’s hilarious Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain was absurdly passed over in favor of Grahame’s cornball, dippy Southern belle routine, one of the weakest and most mystifying performances to ever be thusly rewarded.

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