The first thought I had while watching Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is “Why haven’t I seen more movies with Annette Bening?” I love it when movies get the casting spot on, and she is perfect as a former film star, who is eking out an existence in regional theatre in the UK with only memories of her former glory as she battles waning health. Perhaps having been in a similar position herself, she can easily channel the strange mix of seductiveness and imperiousness so often found in older actresses.
Bening plays Gloria Grahame, who was a major name in the 1950s playing supporting actress’ roles with Humphrey Bogart and Lee Marvin, and even winning an Oscar. We meet her in 1978 living in London’s Primrose Hill and performing theatre when she meets aspiring British actor Peter Turner, played by Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell. The film’s story is based on his book about his relationship with Grahame, who was fifty-four when they met and he was twenty-six and lasted until she died of cancer in 1981.
Whether Bening is perfect as Grahame is the subject of debate. Reviewers who have read the book and seen the movie are critical of its representation of Grahame but taken as a story on its own, Bening perfectly captures the conflict of a woman dealing with the cruelty of aging that Hollywood inflicts, and her determination to survive as an actress. In many ways, it might have been better as a ‘based-on’ story rather than sticking to the facts as Grahame’s backstory has quite a bit of baggage.
According to Hollywood lore, one of Grahame’s career killers was that her second husband, the director Nicholas Ray, caught her in bed with his son Tony, who was only thirteen years old at the time. Tony became her fourth husband nine years later, but it caused a huge scandal – unsurprisingly. The film addresses the issue, then skips over it lightly in a scene with her mother, briefly played by Vanessa Redgrave, but here’s the thing – if this was a male bedding a 13-year-old girl would a movie be made about his later romances?
Part of me is also uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of the story, why just because someone was once famous, does it give anybody the right to share the intimate details of their illness and death? Hence, why this would have been better as a based-on or fictional work. The film deals with the last few months of Grahame’s life as she is dying of cancer and seeks refuge with Turner and his family, especially his mother, wonderfully played by Julie Walters. I think the film overall works best as a story about human kindness – kind, generous people taking in a lost soul adrift in the world. At that level I really enjoyed it, and the scenes with Turner and his family doing their all to care for Grahame gives you hope for the rest of us.
The production values are a bit confused, the Liverpool and London scenes are great – and not bathed in Bleak British Blue – but clearly, the budget didn’t extend to shooting in the US with clearly fake Los Angeles and New York settings. And that just about sums up this film, when it is real and dealing with the human condition, it is touching and beautiful but goes off kilter when it explores Grahame’s Hollywood backstory. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and would recommend seeing it for its message of caring for others no matter what baggage they bring along with them.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Hollywood is an uneven biopic about fading stardom and mismatched love that succeeds only because of its warm beating heart.
Reviewed by Adrienne Kohler.