Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Movie Review: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Paul McGuigan.
Written by: Matt Greenhalgh based on the memoir by Peter Turner.
Starring: Jamie Bell (Peter Turner), Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame), Stephen Graham (Joe Turner, jr.), Julie Walters (Bella Turner), Vanessa Redgrave (Jeanne McDougall), Frances Barber (Joy), Peter Turner (Jack), Leanne Best (Eileen), Kenneth Cranham (Joe Turner).
If you were going to make a biopic of a Hollywood blonde bombshell from the 1950s, you probably could not choose better than Gloria Grahame. At her best, Grahame was a fixture in film noir, and delivered great performances in films like Crossfire for Edward Dmytryk, In a Lonely Place for Nicholas Ray, The Big Heat and Human Desire for Fritz Lang – and her Oscar winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful, directed by Vincente Minelli. Her off-screen life was more fascinating than her onscreen on – she is probably most infamous for apparently sleeping with her stepson (son of her then husband, Nicholas Ray) when he was 13, and then later marrying him. As was inevitable (and still, in some ways is) for bombshells, her career faded as she aged.
Unfortunately, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool doesn’t really show us Grahame at all in the 1950s – but instead focuses on the sad final years of her life, before she died in 1981 of cancer. The film is based on the memoir by Peter Turner, a British actor, who met Grahame in the late 1970s, and had an affair with her when she was in her late 50s, and he was in his mid-20s. As a result, the film concentrates more on his point of view than hers – and the result is strange in that the only reason why this story is being told is because Grahame was famous, and yet the movie gives you no real sense of why. You are stuck wondering why you’re watching this story, of these people.
The stars of the film are not in the least bit at fault for that. Annette Bening plays Grahame, adding a little bit of a girlish lilt to her voice, but not opting for a straight impersonation, and she really does deliver a very good performance. She is an aging actress in Hollywood playing an aging actress in Hollywood – although Bening has been better able to maintain a career in Hollywood than Grahame did. Her Grahame is a tragic figure – somewhat delusional about herself, and the state of her career (at least on the surface) – saying with a straight face that she would love to play Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company at one point early in the film. But she does nail the insecurity as well – the desire to not concentrate or look at the unpleasantness in her life, and live for right now – which is ultimately what may have killed her. Jamie Bell also does fine work as Peter Turner – even if his character is a little bit more standard issue at first, it grows more complex as the film movies along.
Still, as directed by Paul McGuigan, the films structure of cutting back and forth in time and place over just a few years can be somewhat confusing – and I don’t know how much the story of Peter’s family drama really adds to the film – despite a fine turn by Julie Walters as his mother, who acts as a caretaker for Grahame. The film as a tragic inevitability to it, that make even the drawn out closing scenes not hit as hard as they should.
Ultimately, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool suffers from being a portrait of an interesting person, at not their most interesting time of life. The film doesn’t seem to want to embrace the camp value of something like Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan – but it also doesn’t hit the sad undercurrents of that show either, about being a star, and then aging to the point where you are rejected, and how much that hurts. It’s just kind of there – with two fine performances at its core, but no real reason for being made.

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