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In A 'Liverpool' Love Story, One Versatile Leading Lady Plays Another

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in <em>Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool</em>.
Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in <em>Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool</em>.

Underrated in her '50s heyday and forgotten by many outside the noir aficionados who restored her to posthumous cinephile glory, the Hollywood movie star Gloria Grahame both endured and brought on herself a difficult life. A versatile actress who subtly telegraphed subterranean emotional complication, Grahame was mostly cast as seductive wantons, from the simpering minx saved from a life of infamy by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to the callow Southern belle she played in Vincente Minnelli's 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful, for which she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress. But it was her brilliant turn as a siren with depth opposite Humphrey Bogart's devious screenwriter in Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir classic In a Lonely Place that keeps the Grahame flame today.

That film is referenced more than once in Paul McGuigan's bold new film about Grahame's final years, which were scarred by rejection, illness, and pain. It wouldn't have taken much to squeeze a rancid bio-pic — Sunset Boulevard Part Deux — out of the actress' farewell fling in the late 1970s with Peter Turner, a British working class man half her age. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is not that film, in part because it's based on Turner's generous 1986 memoir about their affair and Grahame's stay, after the two had broken up, in the modest home of his family, who cared for the 57-year-old actress through the penultimate stage of a recurrent cancer she refused to acknowledge or treat.

Adapted from Turner's book by Matt Greenhalgh, Film Stars is not especially subtle filmmaking. The period soundtrack is a touch obvious; people literally walk through doors into their past or future; and a climactic scene that fulfills a lifelong dream of Grahame is pure cheese, though it may also be true. Contrivance aside, though, the movie offers a tough and tender love story that's also clear-eyed about the multiple motivations that both deepened and muddied the bond between a struggling young actor and a former star old enough to be his mother. Grahame came with a colorful marital history that brought her notoriety marrying her stepson after divorcing his father, Nicholas Ray. Turner was no innocent either, and if Grahame was robbing the cradle, Greenhalgh is refreshingly disinclined to fill in with early-life back story for either of the two.

If anything Turner, who's played with appealing directness by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), is closer to the adult in the room after the two meet in 1979 in the seedy London rooming house where Grahame rehearses for a stage play she plainly regards as well below her league. "She always played the tart," the landlady whispers by way of introduction. Turner is more intrigued than put off, and in short order he and Grahame (Annette Bening) bond over disco and land first in bed, and then in a love affair as filled with mutual delight as it is loaded with insecurities of both parties.

From there the action shuttles to and fro across the Atlantic, chronicling the couple's tumultuous affair and the long tail of friendship it left in its wake. In California, Peter, besotted with all things Hollywood, hears some unsettling news about his lover from her admiring, batty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her embittered sister (France Barber). In New York, Grahame is in diva mode, throwing fits even as she hides a secret that imperils the trust between the couple. But Bening comes into her own back in wet, tawdry Liverpool, where a sick Grahame takes refuge and, from the depths of her own lonely place, reveals her craving for what Peter brings with him — a tight-knit family, headed by Julie Walters, a kindly matriarch in a terrifying period wig.

By turns kittenish, imperious, peacock-proud when a modest success on stage restores some her former sexual allure, and quietly despairing, Bening — who bears a startling resemblance to Grahame in her later years — is characteristically superb at channeling a vibrantly volatile inner life the actress was rarely allowed to express on-screen. Bening's expert runs up and down the emotional register leave no room for doubt about Grahame's charisma even when she's playing her own worst enemy. Along with so many other glamour pusses of her generation, she was also a casualty of Hollywood. That the actress who plays her in Film Stars Don't Die with such pathos and wry elan now enjoys a thriving late-life career makes you wonder what Grahame herself, who died at 57 in New York of peritonitis, might have done with the same opportunities.

Me, I like to imagine Grahame rising from the ashes to direct her own In a Lonely Place, restoring the siren from Nicholas Ray's reversal to her original fate in Dorothy B. Hughes' wonderful novel, her own glam self in the lead once again, opposite Peter Turner.

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