FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
Director: Paul McGuigan
Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir by Peter Turner.
Runtime: 105 mins.
Australian release date: 1 March 2018
Previewed at: The Ritz Cinema, Randwick, Sydney, on 13 February 2018.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, directed by Paul McGuigan, is based on an eponymous memoir by Peter Turner. Set in Liverpool, England, in the late 1970s, it covers the relationship between Turner and the eccentric, compelling, Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, who was often cast as a film noir siren. Grahame had a very colourful life and a career that included not just film but also television and, eventually, the stage. She often played the role of ‘the tart with a heart’ and won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful (1952). She lived an incredible life off-screen too and married four times (once to director Nicholas Ray), had a relationship with a step-son that reputedly began when he was a minor, survived a nervous breakdown for which she was treated with electro-shock treatment, and finally succumbed to breast cancer in 1981 at the age of 57.
Gloria (Annette Bening) first met the much younger, jobbing English actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) when her career was on the downhill slope and they both resided in a London boarding house. She hit on Peter for a small loan and the two soon became firm friends and then lovers but they split up when Gloria was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, a fact she kept from Peter. It was only later, when Gloria collapsed in northern England that Peter found out about the cancer and took her home to his family in Liverpool where she resided for a short period, cared for by Peter and his mother Bella (Julie Walters). It was not until she became too sick to be cared for at home that her family was notified and she was taken back to the States. McGuigan’s film concentrates on this short period and includes a number of flashbacks to the couple’s earlier relationship, not initially detailing Gloria’s personal life or indeed delving much into her previous career. He does this because it seems that Peter, being much younger than Gloria when they met, knew little of her fame and the director wanted to show her as Peter would have seen her - theirs was a genuine love story. It was only later, after a trip the couple made to Grahame’s Los Angeles home, that Turner met her bitchy sibling Joy (Francis Barber), and her doting mother Jeanne McDougall (Vanessa Redgrave), who had encouraged her acting career.
Bening is mesmerizing as Grahame. She is nuanced and utterly believable as the fading beauty who exudes a kind of sexuality that defies her years. Bell is a perfect match for Bening’s femme fatale, a man who treats her with the utmost respect and dignity because he loves her, not because of who she was. The other members of his family are similarly smitten, especially Bella as played by Walters, even if it’s a character type the veteran actress is more than familiar with. It is interesting to note that Bell and Walters appeared together 17 years ago in Billy Elliot and it is not surprising to witness how fine an actor he has become. Redgrave gives her usual finely-honed performance, even if she plays McDougall in somewhat of a simpering manner, but overall the casting is perfect.
McGuigan and his editor Nick Emerson wanted to pay homage to some of Grahame’s famous films so there are a number of interesting cuts from one scene to another. “We did a lot of transitions where the set would turn and you’d end up in another set,” the director explains. “A character would walk through a door from one setting and would end up in Los Angeles or they’d walk through a door and they’d end up on a beach.” Composer J. Ralph’s beautiful musical score is supplemented by good use of Elton John’s moving Song For Guy. Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a fascinating story brought cleverly to life by Matt Greenhalgh’s excellent screenplay. It makes you want to do a bit of research of your own into the life of this most extraordinary woman. Gloria Grahame was prepared to break with convention and live life to the fullest, never giving up the desire to be a star, no matter what the odds were. She always claimed she could have played Shakespeare’s Juliet, regardless of her age (which she seemed to never acknowledge and flew into a rage if it was mentioned). It comes as no surprise to learn that she was an early devotee of plastic surgery. She was a brave beauty indeed, one who would never die in Liverpool!