Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

The time frame of Paul McGuigan’s slice-of-life biopic of actress Gloria Grahame isn’t specifically stated, though the first scene takes place in a rundown dressing room in Liverpool in 1981 as Grahame (Annette Bening), long washed-up as a film actress, prepares to take the stage for yet another performance of The Glass Menagerie. She has already met and fallen in love with a local aspiring actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who is much younger than she is, and McGuigan hints throughout the movie that Grahame had a penchant for much younger men, even for boys. However, the film focuses on her relationship with Turner, which is limiting in terms of what it tells us of Grahame’s life as an artist and a human being. It’s also dramatically lazy, since the plot is a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem to cover a long period of time but actually only cover a few years, and the development is just one drunken fight after another, many in Liverpool, where Turner was raised, but also in New York and Los Angeles, all followed by desperate reconciliations and punctuated by the recurrence of the breast cancer that eventually killed her at the age of 57.

McGuigan’s problem is that he seems to be saddled with Turner’s memoir of the affair as his source material, and once he’s into it there seems to be no escape. Consequently, he over-relies on whatever chemistry Bening and Bell can conjure up, and while the former displays her peculiar empathy for older women with emotional problems, Bell’s acting is all reactionary. This tendency is especially annoying in scenes involving his family, who are bizarrely OK with Peter having sex with a much older, unstable woman, simply because they are starstruck. That said, Julie Walters, who plays Turner’s mother, is much more believable in her role as a supportive parent than is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Grahame’s imperious mother as if she were trying out for Lady Macbeth. Since I don’t take Redgrave lightly in any role, I have to imagine the problem is in the part as it’s been written.

Invariably, the viewer is driven to Wikipedia to fill in the holes in Grahame’s life left gaping by the movie, and what you learn makes you desperate to see Bening play her in something with more breadth. After all, she was admired by her peers, especially Bogart, and earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952. In the mid-50s she was considered one of Hollywood’s few actresses with the chops to play pretty much anything with class and rigor. Then she was quickly tossed aside, reduced to the kind of stage tours that kept sending her back to places like Liverpool. Some of these points are touched on, but for the most part Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool takes its title was too literally. Though much of it is set in the storied port city, and Grahame almost did die there, she, in fact, passed away in New York.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Film Starts Don’t Die in Liverpool home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Danjaq LLC

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