A tender portrait of aged glamour

People | 2 Jan 2018

Annette Bening gives Gloria Grahame a nobility rarely shown to faded Hollywood actresses in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, a tender if generic portrait of aged glamour.

Based on the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, Paul McGuigan's film joins the dubious movie genre about close encounters with Hollywood royalty. In films like My Week With Marilyn (2011), and Me and Orson Welles (2008), an outsider is unexpectedly thrust into a short-lived intimacy with a star.

The self-aggrandized "me" of those titles promises us a window into an unattainable, larger-than-life personality as if to say: No one knew (fill-in-the-blank) like me.

But while proximity to Monroe or Welles has wide cachet, Grahame is less of a household name, and the close-up offered by Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is far removed from her heyday. Grahame was, simply, one of the great black-and-white actresses: the "other" 1950s blonde bombshell with a soft, sweet voice.

Grahame, a femme fatale of feline grace, could slip through a film - as critic Judith Williamson wrote - "like a drop of loose mercury."

She slinked through classic noirs like In Lonely Place, Crossfire, and The Big Heat, played the flirtatious girl rescued by Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, and won an Oscar for her performance as Dick Powell's wife in the Hollywood tale The Bad and the Beautiful.

She was often the troubled tart or the deadly seductress, but Graham's personal life turned her into a real-life pariah. Her fourth, initially secret marriage was to her former stepson, the son of her third husband, the filmmaker Nicholas Ray. He was 13 when their relationship began.

None of that, though, is the subject of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Grahame is here in her final years, in exile, acting in regional theater while privately battling breast cancer. It's well into the film before her troubled past is alluded to. We are instead introduced to a vivacious woman - still passionate for acting and for love - albeit a little delusional about her age. (She pines to play Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Co).

From the doorway of her Liverpool flat, she asks a neighbor, Turner (Jamie Bell) to dance disco with her. Inspired by Saturday Night Fever, they groove to Boogie Oogie Oogie.

Turner, a wannabe actor himself, is drawn into her obit - not because of her fame, but because she's still simply intoxicating.

There are colorful moments with Turner's bewildered working class family, but Film Stars Don't Die never amounts to more than a slight, sideways view of Grahame, sorely lacking context.

Grahame died in October 1981 aged 57.

The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for "language, some sexual content and brief nudity."

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