God knows women in Hollywood have enough trouble without pitting them against each other. Nevertheless, a thought experiment: Pick any Meryl Streep performance of the last decade and then imagine Annette Bening in the part. She’d be great, right? That doesn’t mean Bening hasn’t already been doing great work, harnessing her special yin-and-yang of flinty and vulnerable. She’s delivered in arthouse films equal to her talent (The Kids Are All Right, 20th Century Women), and others that are simply no match for her. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool falls in the latter camp.
It says a lot about Bening that you can take away one of her signature traits and she still takes your breath away. Here, Bening re-keys her seductively husky voice higher and breathier to play Gloria Grahame, the one-time Oscar winner (for 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful) whose star dimmed as she aged and scandal tainted her career. That voice turns breathier yet, nearly spectral, as the film dramatizes the end of her life.
Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool confines itself to the May-December romance of Turner – then a struggling actor in his late 20s, played by Jamie Bell – and Grahame, in her 50s and working the boards in London theatre, quite a few rungs down from her starlet days. That limited focus will be a disappointment to classic Hollywood fans. There’s such juicy material there, in her unforgettable parts playing against the likes of Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart, and her four marriages (the turbulent second marriage was to her In a Lonely Place director Nicholas Ray, the fourth to his son). The script, by Matt Greenhalgh, only passingly references any of that, though director Paul McGuigan pays homage to the era of Grahame’s Hollywood heyday by using rear projection in a driving scene, a meta moment that intellectually tracks but has the side effect of puncturing the “reality” of the thing. The film’s stagey transitions to flashback feel just as self-consciously artificial.
Given the film’s self-imposed narrow focus, one wishes it probed more deeply Peter and Gloria’s romance and its presumed complications – their wealth and status imbalance, how her kids felt about mom’s new boyfriend, how Peter’s working-class parents reacted when he first brought home a movie star 30 years his senior (the film skips over that first meeting and goes straight to Peter’s mom, played by Julie Walters, lovingly nursing Gloria in her final days). The lion’s share of the work then is on Bening and Bell’s shoulders to flesh out dramatically thin characters. That they do. (They’ve both earned BAFTA nominations.) These are full-bodied performances, with Peter’s ardency and Gloria’s kittenishness signaled in a hungry look, a wag of the eyebrows. Fittingly, the film’s best scene needs no words. Still just neighbors, not yet lovers, Gloria asks Peter over to practice the hustle with her. The young buck throws himself athletically into the dance, while Gloria shimmies, all coolness. Bell, who shot to fame as a child dancer in Billy Elliot, looks spent from the effort. Bening, fabulously sexy, hardly breaks a sweat.
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