By Kim Hughes
In a perfect world, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will find its audience, and its redemptive real-life story of second chances and the power of love (both romantic and familial) will give cynics a strong thump. As in, sometimes tragedy really does beget happiness.
Based on a 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, a Liverpudlian actor who had an improbable but true May/December romance with faded Hollywood movie star Gloria Grahame in the late 1970s, Film Stars… charts Grahame’s final years with a persuasive mix of humour, pathos, and uncommon dignity.
And Grahame’s story is a humdinger. Fast-tracked for superstardom in the 1950s — she won a best supporting Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful in 1953 — Grahame’s star suddenly nosedived (and somewhat mysteriously, no apparent drug or alcohol abuse) as multiple marriages accumulated negative tabloid headlines and not much else.
By her early 50s, Grahame was doing third-rate theatre to make ends meet, which landed her in England and in the crosshairs of the 26-year-old Turner. The two clumsily began an affair which blossomed into something profound before collapsing under the weight of Grahame’s cancer. At that point, Turner’s gentle parents become surrogate family to the faded star, bringing full circle the beforementioned towering power of love.
Annette Bening plays Grahame as a breathy but sweet vixen alongside Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot fame) in director Paul McGuigan’s drama, which is set in England and Stateside. Both stars and their very solid supporting cast — notably Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s judgmental mother and Julie Walters as Turner’s sweet one — manage to locate the humanity in these complex characters who might have been reduced to caricature were it not for Turner’s tender book and on-set counsel.
Original-Cin joined a roundtable interview with Bening and Bell last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the movie and speculate on what Gloria Grahame would have made of it. Scroll down for our review of the movie.
Original Cin: Peter Turner was quite involved in the production (and has a cameo as a theatre stage hand). What insights did he bring?
Jamie Bell: We talked at length. Both Annette and I had lists of questions a mile long. He’s very protective of Gloria as he should be; he was in love with her. In talking to him — sometimes for hours at a time — you could see him reliving it every time. It’s still fresh for him and because he is a storyteller, he really went back into it. It exhausted him, and you could see just how important this relationship was to him. I had to bring to the film; Peter’s passion and heartbreak. He was very generous with his time and also gracious enough to step back and just let us get on with it. He is a beautiful man.
OC: What insights into Gloria did you get talking to Peter?
Annette Bening: I totally understood why she fell in love with him. He is just so lovable. There isn’t a lot about Gloria we know for sure and the stuff we do know tends to be scandalous and about her many marriages and her tempestuous life. But I imagine that Peter, being an unusually caring boyfriend, was quite striking to her. And Peter doesn’t reveal everything. You just know there were things that happened that he isn’t talking about which I find very interesting. Also, their relationship was very intense. By the time he wrote his book, it just poured out of him because of the depth of the experience. It’s an excellent book, in part because of the unusual nature of this relationship.
OC: How did you guys locate your own chemistry making the film?
AB: It’s hard to describe… it’s just something that happens. You can’t just make it happen. Jamie and I didn’t really talk about it. We just worked moment to moment, trying to find trust and an openness.
OC: How would Gloria feel about this film?
AB: Probably exposed. I think that’s why Peter is so protective of her. I don’t want to romanticize her; I want to keep her dignity. I mean, the reason she ended up in the UK was because she couldn’t get a job. She was doing tiny theatre productions all over, also in places like Wisconsin and L.A. She really struggled with finding work. But she also had a certain grit about her, and she was prepared to take the work that she could find.
OC: And why do you think that career-wise, she ended up being so left behind?
AB: I honestly don’t know. And I couldn’t find the answer to that question. She was in some really bad stuff in the 60s and 70s though she wasn’t necessarily bad herself. In fact, there were some moments that were quite good but it was pretty hard seeing some of the stuff. On the flip side of that, my favourite film of Gloria’s is In A Lonely Place (a film noir from 1950 co-starring Humphrey Bogart). It’s such a great film. She was married to (director) Nicholas Ray at the time and they were breaking up during that movie. And Bogart was really nice to her and, I think, protected her from Nicholas who was maybe quite difficult.
OC: Was there any pressure playing someone well-known that people could look up to check for similarities and mannerisms?
AB: I tried not to worry too much about that. She’s not actually that famous. And there wasn’t much film of her at that later stage in her life when the affair with Peter took place. I didn’t want to do an imitation of her. I wanted to capture her essence. Funny enough, when I did the film The Grifters in 1990, the director Stephen Frears suggested I watch Gloria Grahame films. At that time, I didn’t know who she was.
OC: Do you think the May/December aspect of this romance made it even more compelling than the famous/not famous aspect of Gloria and Peter’s relationship?
JB: I’m not really sure. I mean, both are really fish out of water in the other person’s world — her a former movie star in a Liverpool flat, Peter an aspiring actor in New York and L.A. In terms of the relationship, Peter Turner is an open book. When he saw Gloria, he didn’t see an older woman, or an actress. He just saw love and went for it. He was non-judgmental, same as his family who cared for her. And one can only presume she was so appreciative of Peter’s family for taking her in under such difficult circumstances. I love that about this story. Family is such an important theme here. At a specific moment, Gloria just needed to be held and taken care of and loved without judgement. And that’s what Peter gave to her.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
With its sterling cast and wild-but-true premise, director Paul McGuigan’s beautifully shot Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool should be a commercial shoo-in even if — and I’m just going to go ahead and say it — the sexual life of a 50-something woman as played by an actual 50-something woman wouldn’t seem to be catnip to the megaplex crowd. Fine. Leave the popcorn-munchers to their CGI.
Detailing the animated May/December romance between faded Hollywood film star Gloria Grahame and young-buck Briton Peter Turner in the late 70s before Grahame’s cancer extinguished her light, Film Stars… manages to be both a romantic love story and a salute to nurturing family. It also floats the notion that fame ultimately takes away much than it bestows.
Annette Bening is reliably great as Grahame opposite Jamie Bell who gives knocked knees genuine poise and gravitas, thanks to Peter Turner’s memoir of the affair and his generous counsel on set. Perhaps most compelling is Julie Walters as a workaday Liverpudlian wife and mother whose compassion for Gloria gives the faded star a heartfelt ovation she was denied in life. Fun trivia: The film is co-produced by Barbara Broccoli (she of the James Bond franchise) who met the real Peter and Gloria when they were together.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Walters. Opens January 26 in Toronto, February 9 in Montreal and throughout the winter in other cities.