In the late 70s, Peter Turner was living in a boarding house in Primrose Hill. Among his fellow lodgers was Gloria Grahame, a once revered but now fading Hollywood siren, who happened to be playing Sadie in a production of Somerset Maugham’s ‘Rain’ at the Watford Place. This is how they met.
What followed was a two year whirlwind romance that ultimately ended in tragedy. Based on Turner’s memoir of the same name, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a poignant and intimate portrayal of Gloria’s final days from director Paul McGuigan.
As a young unknown actor in North London, Turner met and fell in love with Gloria, who had found herself in the endgame of her career, looking for theatre work and grappling with fears about her health. After a short hiatus and believing that their romance had seemingly dwindled to nothing, Turner received a surprise phone call; Grahame had collapsed and requested to stay with him in his family home in Liverpool.
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell play the roles of Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner, bringing an otherwise mediocre script to life. Bening once again showcases her uncanny ability to portray the tiniest flickers of idiosyncrasy and wit in the women she plays. Her portrayal of Gloria shows her fraying at the seams: her make-up routines and golden trinkets, including a lighter once gifted to her by Humphrey Bogart, are smoke and mirrors, disguising her displaced stardom.
Similarly, Bell delivers a tender and grounded performance as the frustrated Liverpudlian lad dealing with the impossible whims of a superstar ex-girlfriend who, despite everything, he loves till their final goodbye. It’s truly a testament to Bell that he is never lost in the shadow of Bening’s performance; instead the film lights up most when its leads are together. The age difference between the two is obviously a recurring theme, but it’s never hammed up and only surfaces in moments of insecurity for Grahame, who desperately yearns to be young again.
Alongside the two leads is a smorgasbord of supporting cast that give the film real heart. Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham are superb as Peter’s parents and Stephen Graham gives a solid performance as his brother. There’s a rather affecting scene when Peter’s dad takes him for a pint down the local pub. The dialogue between them is some of the most organic in the film, delivering a touching insight into the dynamics of their relationship. Though fleeting, it’s a well-crafted moment from screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh that gifts the film with an element of nuance that may have otherwise been lost.
It’s also worth mentioning the soundtrack which is an apropos accompaniment throughout the film; there’s a bitter-sweetness to the new Elvis Costello song that runs over the end credits. Often, the music permeates a scene with such pervasive authority, you’d half expect to catch the actors singing along.
Occasionally the sentiment is sickly sweet and Gloria’s death comes hurtling through the film like a freight train but then perhaps it should. For a character as bold as she was, going quietly was never an option. Her story will remain once more in the spotlight, and what a story it is.