Annette Bening is one of those rare actresses who makes a movie, however otherwise deficient, worth seeing. In “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” she is playing Gloria Grahame, the film noir siren whose career sputtered out in the last decades of her short life. Based on the 1986 memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, and directed by Paul McGuigan from a scattershot script by Matt Greenhalgh, the film is frustrating because so many of its best possibilities are missed. But Bening keeps you watching, and, to a lesser extent, so does Jamie Bell as Peter Turner, the young British actor who became Grahame’s lover for a brief spell in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
We first see Gloria preparing to go onstage as Amanda in a low-rent London production of “The Glass Menagerie,” whereupon she collapses and ends up, for a time, being nursed back to a semblance of health in the Liverpool home of Peter’s parents (well played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) under Peter’s guidance. The film then flashes back to where it all began, when Peter and Gloria were neighbors in a cheap rooming house and she seductively invites him over to teach her some “Saturday Night Fever” dance moves.
Their dancing duet, as they shimmy to “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” makes it very clear where these two are headed, and soon Gloria and Peter, who is half Gloria’s age and knows little about her movie career – which included playing the flirty Violet in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and winning an Oscar in 1953 for “The Bad and the Beautiful” – are inseparable. (Their best dating scene: Gloria shrieks with delight as they watch the most gruesome sequence from “Alien.”)
It’s not difficult to understand what Gloria sees in Peter: He’s virile and doting. Bening doesn’t play up the pathos of Gloria’s decline or her need for rejuvenation. It would be easy to imagine her played as a Tennessee Williams character – a cross between, say, Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie” and Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” – but Bening gives her a more hard-bitten core. Gloria, we are soon made aware of, has been battling breast cancer, but she is too proud, and too scared, to reveal this to Peter. She holds out for herself the possibility of romantic survival: Her greatest wish is to play Juliet in a West End production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
It’s less obvious what Peter sees in Gloria. He has had an active sex life with women his own age. He reveals quickly at one point that he is bisexual, but nothing further is made of this. He is not portrayed as an opportunist, and his relationship with his parents, with his mother in particular, seems unremarkable. He can’t be characterized as an adoring fan since he knew nothing about the object of his adoration prior to their hookup, and even after he learns of her fame, it clearly is not what draws him in. Peter is not so much an enigma in this movie as he is a blank, and it’s to Bell’s credit that he nevertheless gives this blankness a high degree of energy.
Despite Bening’s intensity, the movie doesn’t provide a whole lot of biographical richness for her to work with. She wisely doesn’t attempt to mimic Grahame’s vixen persona (which, in fact, Bening already did when she played a noir vamp in “The Grifters”). But the more controversial aspects of Grahame’s life are played down, like, for example, her four children, almost none of whom we hear much about, by three different husbands (she was married four times), or the fact that her fourth husband, Anthony Ray, was the stepson of her second, the director Nicholas Ray, and that she had carried on an affair with Anthony starting when he was 13. This affair was partially responsible for Grahame’s Hollywood demise, although, again, the movie doesn’t highlight it. By eliding over this material, the filmmakers are attempting to conventionalize, or whitewash, the more disturbing aspects of Grahame’s life.
I wish they hadn’t done so. In Bening, they had an actress who could have handled anything they threw at her. Grade: B (Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity.)