The life stories of movie stars tend to follow the same arc: struggle, success, obscurity. Even the embellishments don’t vary much: addiction, plastic surgery, financial downgrades, messy personal lives.
The biography of noir icon Gloria Grahame, who won an Oscar for her nine minutes in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and has found a kind of immortality via the character Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” offers little deviation from the norm. So why dwell on the final years of Grahame’s life, when she was reduced to playing supporting roles onstage in mid-tier cities while battling breast cancer?
The only answer that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” provides is Annette Bening’s marvelously helpless performance as a 50-something Grahame. If you told me that Bening had her spine replaced with titanium, I’d believe you in a heartbeat, so convincing is she as an enduring fortress in movies like “20th Century Women” and “The Kids Are All Right.” The girly, flirty voice that Bening uses as “Gloria” is, initially at least, a shock. The neediness and insecurity that Bening reveals, even as Gloria clings to her final shreds of dignity, are a revelation.
But director Paul McGuigan (“Victor Frankenstein”) and writer Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) ultimately let their star down. “Liverpool” is a padded wisp of a drama, the first half’s evocative mystery gradually giving way to the second half’s surface-level reenactments. It’s entirely believable that the middle-aged Gloria didn’t disclose too much of herself to her 28-year-old lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, also great), through whose eyes we see the unhappy actress. (The script is based on the real-life Turner’s memoir.)
But the cautious result is that we learn too little of Gloria’s relationships to the parts of her life that seemingly mattered to her most: Her job, her peers, her children, her cancer, and the scandal that made her a pariah in Hollywood. (“Liverpool” refers only obliquely to the sexual relationship Grahame had with the 13-year-old son of her second husband, celebrated director Nicholas Ray. Later, Ray’s son, Tony, became her fourth husband.)
Bening doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Grahame — a fact that wouldn’t matter, except McGuigan occasionally brings it to our attention via vintage clips of the actress in “Liverpool.” The film toggles between 1979, when Gloria seduces (or maybe emotionally blackmails) Peter, a semi-employed stage actor, and 1981, when cancer has robbed her of her independence.
Gloria and Peter are no longer together, but he obligingly brings his former paramour to the cramped and distressingly wallpapered home he shares with his graying parents, who have seen all of Grahame’s movies. If Mr. and Mrs. Turner (Kenneth Cranham and Julie Walters) were once starstruck, they aren’t anymore. “She ain’t swanning about Sunset Boulevard,” tuts Peter’s dad. Norma Desmond at least had a mansion.
“Liverpool” fills us in on the fling Gloria and Peter half-enjoyed. She tries to impress him with her oceanside bungalow and stories about her onetime neighbors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Gloria needn’t have tried so hard; Peter’s so provincial he’s bowled over by the idea of pizza delivery. There are a few wonderfully lived-in details like this, as well as a disco dancing sequence full of joy and valid criticisms of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.”
But as the film progresses, spotting the missed opportunities for narrative tension and character development becomes more compelling than the spare storyline itself. McGuigan makes a grave mistake in muddying up Gloria’s motivations in a pivotal late scene, and the fight between Peter and his plot-necessity brother (Stephen Graham, “Taboo”) over whether or not to inform Gloria’s children about her illness (despite the actress’s protestations) feels numbingly deflated of conflict, especially given the film’s painstaking avoidance of Gloria’s familial tangles.
Gloria’s obsession with playing Shakespeare’s Juliet (a character written as a 13-year-old) also begs the (never answered) question of how she felt about or internalized Hollywood’s dismissal of older or “difficult” women.
Grahame’s contributions to cinema are more than worthy of a reevaluation. Her complications, too, deserve more than this tepid, uncurious portrait.