Stark Insider In Culture: reviewing Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
Much has been written about Gloria Grahame (1923 – 1981), the so-called “suicide blonde” and “bad girl of film noir.” Descended from English royalty and bred for acting at an early age, she distinguished herself on film, in stage productions and on television in both England and the United States.
However, this lovely, vibrant film is not about her so much as it is about her impact in the life of Peter Turner, on whose poignant memoir the film is based. Through Turner and his family in a working class neighborhood of Liverpool, Grahame found a second life after her film career faded. And after four divorces, she finally found love with a man nearly 30 years younger.
Annette Bening said to the director, “I don’t want this to be about an old lady dying alone.”
To say that Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame “brings the pain” is on target, not only the physical pain of fighting a major illness, but also the emotional pain of contending with Hollywood sexual harassment. The fire which Grahame brought to her roles in film noir classics such as The Big Heat, Human Desire, Crossfire, and In a Lonely Place, along with her Oscar-winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful, fueled her career but also created uproar in her private life and put her at odds with powerful studios in Hollywood. This is Bening’s finest performance since The Siege, a 1998 film with Denzel Washington.
Peter Turner’s memoir of this unlikely romance was published while his relationship with Gloria Graham was still a recent memory (1986). However, it took years for the project to come to film fruition, and now it is an insightful period piece with Jamie Bell as Peter Turner, Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s mother, and Julie Walters as Turner’s mother in Liverpool. Director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh created a vehicle in which the performances re-introduce us to the idea and purpose of families and one’s place in them; this is the other love story in the film.
Cinematic images embrace brightly patterned wallpaper in homes and public places, coin-operated telephones, the Saturday Night Fever film with John Travolta, dial telephones, Gloria growing her own tomatoes in California while she lived in a trailer, Peter walking through a Liverpool alley during a heavy rain while he processes Gloria’s illness, and the two of them driving along the California coast and witnessing a breathtaking sunset .
Vanessa Redgrave’s incandescent cameo as Grahame’s mother in California reveals where some of Gloria’s magic comes from. And Julie Walters sets the tone for Grahame’s return to Liverpool by taking her in without hesitation and caring for her during a difficult and mysterious illness. Jamie Bell more than holds his own as Peter Turner, who recalls his passionate and tumultuous affair with Grahame first in Liverpool and then in New York.
Annette Bening said to the director, “I don’t want this to be about an old lady dying alone.” And the director was in agreement. In a live interview after the film previewed, the director said this film is about “a woman of a certain age who is still sexual, naughty and alive.” He pointed out that in Gloria’s time, “film stars then were mysterious and beautifully contained within cinema.” This was before the age of Google.
Peter Turner said the relationship between him and Grahame changed his life. Casting Jamie Bell as Turner was inspired. Both his face and his body loved the camera (he is a dancer), and he was able to immerse himself in Turner’s relationship and its memory. Turner’s book and the film are about memory – the great transitions from one set of memories to another, director McGuigan has said; one person can change your life, put you in another place.
Her perspective on life, in the words of Gloria Grahame:
It wasn’t the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it.
You go through life in a series of peaks and valleys.
There’s always a race against time. I don’t think for one moment that life gets better. How can it? One’s body starts to fall apart.
I remember everything, even the dates. But I don’t want others to remember the details, just the image.
I don’t think I ever understood Hollywood.
We first meet Gloria when she asks Peter to come into her hotel room in Primrose Hill to help her hustle. She is rehearsing for a play and needs to dance “the hustle,” so they practice to “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” And that’s when the viewer falls in love with her.
Author and actor Peter Turner has said, “I just want people to remember her.” Thanks to director McGuigan and Annette Bening’s performance, people will.