Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is plainly wonderful, and stars Annette Bening, who is plainly wonderful, as Gloria Grahame, a one-time Hollywood movie star who in later life hits on hard times — ‘a big name in black and white. Not doing too well in colour,’ comments her landlady at one point — and embarks on a romance with a young English actor who is 30 years her junior. It is based on a true memoir. It is a love story, told tenderly, bravely, smartly, movingly. And believably. Older women, it seems, can be interesting, complicated, vital, attractive and sexual. Who knew? (But don’t spread the word, or they’ll all want to be like that, and won’t take the shitty bit-parts any more.)
The memoir is by Peter Turner, who was an aspiring, twenty-something Liverpudlian actor when he first met 56-year-old Grahame in London in 1979 — we’ll see him take her to the pub for a pint of bitter; 45p! — but the film opens a couple of years later when they are no longer together, and she is due to appear on stage in the provinces somewhere. She had roles in It’s A Wonderful Life and Oklahoma!, won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, and once lived in the mansion next door to Bogart and Bacall, but those days are gone.
However, she never makes it on stage. Instead, she suddenly collapses and calls Peter (played by Jamie Bell) to ask if she might ‘recover’ in his family’s Liverpool home. She has nowhere else to go. The timeline then splits between the now, as Gloria is dying, in effect, and flashbacks to their short-lived but intensely passionate and believable affair. You don’t doubt, for a minute, that he would fancy the pants off her.
Directed by Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) with a script by Matt Greenhalgh (Control, Nowhere Boy, The Look of Love), the film is one delicious scene after another. It’s Peter and Gloria dancing to the Bee Gees in their boarding house. It’s Peter travelling to LA and meeting Gloria’s odd mother (Vanessa Redgrave at her most Vanessa Redgravey) and bitterly jealous sister (a terrific Frances Barber), who lets the cat out of the bag regarding Gloria’s previous four marriages, one to her own stepson. (There is only so much you can cover in a film, and if you read the Wikipedia entry on Gloria you will not be disappointed, I promise.)
And there is Gloria in that terraced house in Liverpool, with its extraordinarily baroque retro wallpaper — the wallpaper, just so you know, is also plainly wonderful — as nursed by Peter, and his parents. Kenneth Cranham plays his father, and Julie Walters is his lovely, warm mother. Playing a lovely warm mum is a walk in the park for Walters, but no one walks that park better, and her scenes with Bening — tidying her hair; gossiping on the bed — would make this film worth seeing even if everything else was garbage. Which it isn’t.
There are clever touches and flourishes. A drive along the California coastline, for instance, mimics a scene from the 1950 film In a Lonely Place, which Gloria starred in with Bogart. But this is essentially held together by the two lead performances. On paper, Bell has the lesser role, but this is his best performance to date as he grows Peter’s initial excitement, sensual abandon and infatuation into something far deeper, and sadder.
As for Bening, if she doesn’t get Oscar-nominated this year, I will eat my hat, and also yours. Her Gloria is not a Sunset Boulevard sort of Gloria. Her Gloria is complicated: feisty yet vulnerable, selfish yet generous; heroic yet tragic, fabulous yet trying. Plus she delivers a sort of double performance. We are watching her being an older actress while she is playing an older actress, which is fascinating in and of itself, as is her lack of vanity. She doesn’t dodge the lens in any way. She owns it.
A few quibbles. Some scenes seem to be missing. For example, Peter’s family act as if they’ve known Gloria for ever, but when did they first meet? And it does opt for something sentimentally generic right at the end. But mostly? It is plainly wonderful.