Gloria Grahame, an actress cast alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and countless other big names during the Golden Age of Hollywood, is largely forgotten today. You may have seen her though, as the flirtatious Violet in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the aspiring actress Laurel Gray in In A Lonely Place (1950), or as the greedy Rosemary in The Badeand the Beautiful (1952), for which she won an Academy Award. Unfortunately, her success was short-lived. Grahame was the quintessential femme fatale, praised for her work in the film noir genre. But when Hollywood grew out of that era, it left Grahame behind.
Grahame found success elsewhere though, in television and on stage. After all, it was the theater where she began her career and where she ultimately wanted to be. It also happened to be where she encountered Peter Turner, author of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and inspiration for the upcoming romantic drama by the same name.
Annette Bening stars as Gloria Grahame, with Jamie Bell playing Peter Turner. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is the story of their relationship, as told be Turner. We’re first introduced to Grahame as she prepares for a play, her Hollywood memorabilia littered across her vanity. But the atmosphere shifts from glamour to chaos when Grahame stands to dress and, suddenly clutching her stomach, drops to the floor in pain. Quickly, though, viewers are taken to the day Turner, an aspiring stage actor, first set eyes on Grahame, who happened to be jiving in her new apartment just down the hall from him. After they share a dance session, recommended to Grahame as prep for her stage work, it’s obvious that the two are captivated by one another.
At first, Grahame’s sickness is easy to forget, especially after their tango. We’re so smitten with their romance that Grahame’s illness is quickly left behind. But like in the book, we weave in and out of the past and present. Grahame’s last few months are spent with Turner and his family in Liverpool. After passing out before her performance, Grahame seeks Turner out to care for her. It’s during her time at his house that we jump into the past and explore their romance through flashbacks. In beginning of their romantic journey, when love overshadows the difficulties — such as their their age gap and the fact that, while Grahame has already made a name for herself, Turner is just starting out — Turner believes that he can help Grahame get back on her feet. But as the weight of the task sets in, Turner struggles to come to terms with the fact that some things are out of his control.
Because the film is told through Turner, the history of Gloria Grahame is not required reading, but don’t let that stop you from taking a crash course in her filmography. Before Bell signed onto the project, he’d never of the actress before either. No matter, the film gradually familiarizes us with Grahame’s legacy through conversations between Turner and his parents — who happened to be fans of the star — and a series of dates that Grahame takes Turner on. From dinners at Hollywood-inspired restaurants to trips to old movie theaters showing her movies, viewers get a sense of her influence on the industry. The film also briefly outlines Grahame's romantic past, which involved four marriages—the last of which was to Tony Ray, son of director Nicholas Ray, who was also one of Grahame’s ex-husbands, making her final husband her ex-stepson. Grahame’s messy past doesn’t discourage Turner, though, making their connection all the more powerful.
Though she may seem miscast, Bening delivers an outstanding performance. From Grahame’s high pitched, flirtatious voice to her hidden self-consciousness, Bening encompasses all the mannerisms that make Gloria Grahame, Gloria Grahame. Like her marital scandals, Grahame’s habit of plastic surgery is widely known. From the minute she appeared on screen, Grahame narrowed in on her imperfections, paying particular attention to her lacking upper lip, and Bening’s facial contours reflect Grahame’s constant awareness of her self-stated inadequacies.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a rich romance that mixes Old Hollywood with new. Like Grahame and Turner, it’s fearless. Director Paul McGuigan doesn’t shy away from intimacy, which is fitting because neither did Grahame. It’s a story that’ll be sure to sweep you away and afterward, make you want to take a deep dive into Grahame’s legacy.
photo: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer and film critic. Her writing has been published by Vice, Birth Movies Death, Bust, Huffington Post, Broadly, IGN Entertainment, and others. More of her work can be found at samanthaladwig.com.