Rule of thumb: film projects that are “in the making” for decades tend to yield mediocre cinema. Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, the adaptation of Peter Turner’s 1986 memoir about Gloria Grahame, both proves and disproves this rule. The film has palpable chemistry between the two leads, and smart use of musical selections. However, the production design can be distracting at times. Some choices regarding cinematography seem to have been made from budgetary, not artistic, considerations.
Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) was a struggling young actor in 1979 when a glamorous new neighbor caught his attention. It turned out to be 1950s femme fatale Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), living in London because of a role in a stage play. Despite a 29-year age difference, the two became friends and then lovers.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool uses a framing device, in which the desperately ill Grahame begs Turner to let her stay with him and his family. Matt Greenhalgh’s nonlinear script provides key moments in the Grahame/Turner relationship-its beginning, times of joy, and its complications.
Bell and Bening are well cast as the May-December lovers. Bening captures Grahame’s signature mannerisms (the pout, the fluty voice, the strut/walk) without edging into caricature. The escalating sexual tension between these characters, as well as the affair that results, is effectively conveyed. Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave contribute strong performances as their respective mothers.
At the same time, I am a bit puzzled by this film, both by what it chooses to show and what it chooses to omit. The filmmakers act as if Gloria Grahame is still a household name-hardly the case, except to film buffs and those who saw her work when originally released. Today, most people would recognize her as Violet, the young woman who tries to seduce George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. The filmmakers never mention this film; instead, they include a small clip of Grahame from 1954’s Naked Alibi. I am surprised by their failure to include the one film performance Turner had actually seen prior to meeting her-Angel in 1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth.
Grahame’s brilliant performance from 1950’s In A Lonely Place is only mentioned in the context of a memento from co-star Humphrey Bogart, while there are no references at all to 1953’s The Big Heat. The film contains footage of Grahame’s Oscar win for 1952’s The Bad And The Beautiful, a role where she played distinctly against type. If you do not already know Gloria Grahame’s screen persona, you would be hard pressed to discern it from Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.
In similar fashion, the filmmakers provide spotty information about Grahame’s personal life. There are hints of sibling rivalry in a scene where Turner and Grahame entertain her mother and sister, but no background as to its cause. It would be helpful to know that Grahame’s sister, actress Joy Hallward, never achieved major success in films. Again, this is hardly common knowledge for a modern day audience.
Elements of the production design-like the wallpaper, which could be a character all by itself-threaten to overwhelm the actors at times.
There are relatively few long shots in the film- cinematographer Urszula Pontikos works primarily in close-ups with a small number of medium shots. This could be explained by the intimate nature of the story. However, the use of long shots makes me wonder if budgetary issues were a factor. Long shots in the film tend to be locations (New York, Los Angeles) conveyed through the use of rear-projected backdrops. This device quickly becomes predictable and unconvincing.
On the other hand, I think J. Ralph’s scoring works very well. The musical selections range from disco to an Elvis Costello song written especially for the film, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way.”
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool works as the story of two mismatched people who fall in love, separate, and reunite when one has a time of great need. Just do not watch it expecting to learn much about Gloria Grahame.
Theme: Star Biopics
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