Movie Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

The Hollywood culture of the 1950s is on full display in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Wrapped in the calculated mannerisms of the era, sexpot actress Gloria Grahame won a supporting actress Oscar in ’52. For women, 25 was retirement time. There were legends who were exceptions, but most young women, like Grahame, fell into sudden oblivion. Women were scripted additions to male stars whose age, of course, didn’t matter.
We watch Annette Bening create Gloria Grahame in her golden days, followed by her affair with the much younger Peter Turner. Eventually, she leaves him for another man, dabbles in all kinds of ludicrous adventures, becomes sick and dies at 55. All this is based on Peter Turner’s memoir of his affair with Grahame after the culture of the era forced her off the screen. His sensitive book about a woman who remained a creature of her time has been filmed with dignity by everyone involved.
The operative word here is atmosphere. When Grahame moves in with Turner in 1979 and says “It’s a long way back to Sunset Boulevard,” we realize that we are in for a mixture of both sadness and appreciation. We watch snatches of her old movies, hear her memories — and watch her decline. The story unfolds in diminished natural colors as director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh turn Peter Turner’s memories into a groundbreaking look at what can happen when stardom ends. Theirs is a groundbreaking look behind the scenes in Hollywood’s glory days. They have done it with delicacy and respect.
Annette Bening becomes Gloria Grahame without ever once trying to soften the tough reality that growing older bestowed on Hollywood women. Bening at 55, has known continual success as an actress and as a wife with a husband and four children. As she steps into this part, she leaves behind any of the fakery she might have used in a role that is often unflattering to her. It is a tribute to the culture of today that women of her talent can command the screen at any age.
Jamie Bell creates Peter Turner, the aspiring young English actor who was smitten with Grahame and helped her through her last days after she had left him for another man. Peter and his mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) become Grahame’s custodians while she is dying. Grahame’s last words, “How do I look?” are the perfect summary of what we have seen.
The acting conveys it all. Annette Bening creates a brave older woman who is living in pretense, caught in her own flawed imagining of who she really is. Jamie Bell does a beautiful job as the younger lover, resisting any temptation to overdo his part. Add to these Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as Peter’s parents and Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s mother. This is a cast who understood the delicacy of bringing Peter Turner’s book to the screen and they do it with great sensitivity. It’s original. It’s good.
— Reviewed by Joan Ellis

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