Today, only the fans of classic movies are likely to know who Gloria Grahame was. The actress was often cast as the sultry femme fatale in memorable film noirs, such as In a Lonely Place and Sudden Fear; she was twice nominated for an Oscar — for 1947’s Crossfire and The Bad and Beautiful (1952), which she won. But by the late 1970s, Grahame was mostly working on stage, surviving on the fumes of her once-golden days.
That’s where Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool catches up with Grahame, here portrayed by Annette Bening. It’s 1981, and she collapses backstage while performing in the United Kingdom. After being released from the hospital for “gas” (so she says), she winds up with an ordinary family whom she knows in Liverpool.
The story is told in a non-linear fashion, so it takes a scene or two to sort out that Grahame’s connection to the family is the twentysomething son and aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). He and Grahame had met three years earlier in London, as neighbors. Turner is entranced — this is a bona fide Hollywood star — and Grahame is lonely and eager for flattering male attention. The two develop a relationship, that while lopsided by age, money and social status, still manages moments of sublime connection.
Adapted from Turner’s memoir, Film Stars is not a bad story, though I’m not sure it’s well served by McGuigan’s bouncing around in time. At times, it’s more like a collection of scenes, some of them quite charming or affecting. Bening and Bell get tipsy and dance in her flat to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and it’s adorably dorky. (There’s extra pleasure in seeing Billy Elliott’s Bell do some poor, if enthusiastic, booty-shaking.) And there is a fine cast that also includes Julie Walters, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave and Kenneth Cranham. But it’s really Bening and Bell who sell this; Bening is especially good, calibrating Grahame’s magnetic presence with her crippling vulnerability. Like other star-crossed lovers and actors before them, Grahame and Turner delight in quoting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and damned if those should-be-hackneyed scenes don’t work.