Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool


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Alistair Harkness on the history and development of this new film about Gloria Grahame's life.

When Gloria Grahame won the best supporting actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (Dir. Vincent Minnelli, 1952), her acceptance speech was a masterclass in brevity. Barely pausing for long enough to collect her award, she leaned quickly into the mic, said “thank you very much” and left the stage before the orchestra even realised she was gone. Archival footage of this moment closes Scottish director Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Dont Die in LiverpoolIn the context of a film dramatising the legendary femme fatale’s late-in-life romance with a young Scouse actor called Peter Turner, it’s both poignant and symbolic. After all, her own life and career were all too brief. Within a decade of that Oscar win Hollywood had chewed her up and spat her out and she spent the rest of her life — she died from breast cancer in 1981, aged just 57 — mixing up bit-parts on TV shows and B-movies with repertory theatre in Britain, where her own mother had been a stage actress. But Grahame left a lasting impression too — on fans who recall those great, fiery performances in movies such as In a Lonely Place (Dir. Nicolas Ray, 1950) and The Big Heat (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1953); and on those who came to know and love her, not least Turner, who was 28 years her junior when they fell for each other in the late 1970s. 

McGuigan’s film explores the incongruity of that relationship, but it doesn’t dwell on the age difference between Gloria and Peter, played here by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. Adapted from Turner’s memoir of the same name, the film subverts the taboo status an older woman/younger man relationship still has in movies by barely commenting on it. Instead it lets the chemistry between Bening and Bell develop the way it would if their genders were reversed. That was part of the appeal for McGuigan, but as someone whose own Hollywood career can be traced back to the love of cinema he developed as a working class kid in Glasgow, he also liked the culture clash inherent in a story about a faded Hollywood star finding love and sanctuary in a defiantly working class city like Liverpool.[i] That’s emphasised with little references to contemporary movies of the period, such as Saturday Night Fever (Dir. John Badham, 1977) and Alien (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1979). But it’s also in there in the casting. Bening is modern-day Hollywood royalty and the County Durham-born Bell is the archetypal northern kid made good. There’s even a little nod to Bell’s debut film Billy Elliot (Dir. Stephen Dalrdy, 2000), both in Julie Walters’ role as Peter’s mum and a joyful seduction scene early in the film in which Bening coerces Bell into a spot of afternoon disco dancing.

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Though Bell came later in the casting process, Bening was already onboard when McGuigan signed on.[ii] She’d been fascinated with Grahame since Stephen Frears asked her to watch her films in preparation for playing a femme fatale in his own neo-noir thriller The Grifters (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1990).[iii] Back then, David Puttnam still held the rights, having optioned Turner’s book upon publication in 1987 (according to Turner, he tried to set it up with various stars attached - among them Joan Collins, Madonna and Barbara Hershey).[iv]But when Bond producer Barbara Broccoli secured the rights 20 years ago (Broccoli knew Turner in the 1980s and met Grahame while they were seeing each other), she began speaking to Bening about the part and started actively trying to get it made seven years ago, just as Bening was edging into the right age-bracket to play her at this stage in her life.[v]

Set over three years, the film zeroes in on a sickly Gloria as she takes refuge in the bosom of Peter’s family in Liverpool. As the title indicates, though, this is not a film about a woman dying. Flashing back and forth to trace the evolution of their relationship, the film jumps between Liverpool, London and Los Angeles with a fluidity that reflects the way memory works, ensuring their story plays like a period movie told in the present tense. McGuigan shot the LA scenes on film sets at Pinewood and used old-school film techniques common in Grahame’s heyday to better represent Peter’s perspective, especially as he’s introduced to a world so far from his own experiences. Yet there’s an already faded glamour to the film’s depiction of Hollywood, one befitting Grahame’s own somewhat-shunned status within the industry — a consequence of her failed marriages to powerful industry players like Cy Howard and Nicholas Ray and the scandal generated when she later married Ray’s son (and her stepson) Anthony Ray.[vi] The film touches on the latter but it doesn’t trade in salacious gossip. Instead, Gloria’s determination to find love and work long after Hollywood has stopped calling gives Film Stars Dont Die in Liverpool an unexpected relevance in the wake of the Weinstein revelations and all the terrible stories that have emerged of thwarted talent and derailed careers. 

But back to that Oscar win. After Grahame exited the stage, Bob Hope — that smug bastion of demeaning, sexist snark — attempted to make a joke out of her whirlwind appearance, quipping “she just made it” and scoring a big laugh from the assembled glitterati. Yet she did “just make it” and Film Stars Dont Die in Liverpool pays tribute to her with a moving portrait of a woman who lived a dignified life as a Hollywood survivor.

 

Alistair Harkness

Film Critic, The Scotsman

November 2017 

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[i] Alistair Harkness, ‘Paul McGuigan on directing Annette Being and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’, The Scotsman, 11 November 2017, http://www.scotsman.com/lifest...

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Annette Bening, interview, Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 13 November

[iv] Frank Cottrell Boyce, 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool: the tragic life of Hollywood sensation Gloria Grahame’, The Guardian, 14 November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/fi...

[v] Wendy Mitchell, ‘On the set of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’, Screen Daily, 9 September 2017, https://www.screendaily.com/fe...

[vi] Cottrell Boyce

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