Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Gloria Grahame gets a suitable send off, care of Bening and Bell. Beautiful.

The cut and paste ‘snub’ features that accompany every perceived Oscars slight come nomination time are usually pretty tedious, less about almost universally-held shocks (Brokeback Mountain) and more about catering to the writer’s personal taste. That said, I’m going to indulge this year.

I honestly can’t figure out exactly why Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has been entirely overlooked for a gold statuette. Produced by Bond protector Barbara Broccoli, it’s a bittersweet recounting of the last days of faded 1950s Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and her complicated relationship with former lover and fellow actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).

Adapted from Turner’s 1987 memoir by Control scribe Matt Greenhalgh, it ticks plenty of awards season boxes. Hollywood loves eating itself, with nostalgia for the glory days a powerful force. Even if Grahame toppled in the transition from black and white to glorious colour, instead ending her career in a Northern English theatre, there are also nods to eternal flames.

“Has anyone ever told you you look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke?” Bell asks, and Grahame responds, witheringly, “Yeah, Humphrey Bogart, and I didn’t like it then either.”

The performances are magnificent. Ever the Oscar bridesmaid after four noms, including for 20th Century Women last year, Bening perfects Grahame’s wispy whisper – not entirely unlike that of Marilyn Monroe’s – simultaneously conveying the fire of a whip smart woman who knew her strengths innately and also the quiet, creeping fear of irrelevance and being all alone at the end. But it’s Bell who truly excels as her wistful lover, still holding a candle for their Notting Hill-like days in London, after falling for each other in a similarly faded boarding house.

And then there’s that other Oscar bait, illness. Grahame turns back to Peter several years after their estrangement, following hazy glory days in LA and New York, after she collapses in her dressing room of an unspoken though tragically obvious ailment that hangs heavy over the film after its powerfully affecting opening sequence.

Dancing theatrically between happy and heart-rending, with a dreary Liverpool regularly left behind via magical doorway cuts for a technicolour past that in itself evokes Hollywood glamour, McGuigan and Greenhalgh delicately keep proceedings just the right side of sentimental.

Bening and Bell sell both passion and its aftermath, and kudos are due to Greenhalgh for shooting their frequently hungry kisses and an artful bedroom scene without shying away from their 30-year age gap, instead celebrating it in a genuinely sexy way.

Julie Walters is also sterling as Turner’s beloved mum Bella, fussing about Grahame who, to her, is a chip butty eating and pint sinking part of the family, even if those film star looks she and her husband (Kenneth Cranham) admired on screen still smoulder. Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber, too, are perfectly cast as Grahame’s Shakespeare-quoting mother and venomous sister in a fabulously arch dinner party moment that economically justifies a prequel. But I’m indulging myself too much now. Oscars be damned, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a rare beauty I’ll treasure long after Grahame’s light faded.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords