Drawn from Peter Turner’s 1986 memoir and directed with melancholy tact by Paul McGuigan, this subtly moving drama is handled with much tough love, as befits a brassy dame like Gloria Grahame, who’s formidably played here by Annette Bening.
Grahame, a short-time-star of old-school Hollywood, an Oscar-winner for The Bad And The Beautiful, and a cult figure for It’s A Wonderful Life, In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat (and later Blood And Lace, Mama’s Dirty Girls and Mansion Of The Doomed), had fallen out of favour by the ‘70s, which is why she was forced into regional theatre in Lancaster, England, of all places, back in 1981.
It’s here that we’re introduced to her over the opening credits, as Elton John’s Song For Guy plays and Bening’s Gloria smokes the cigarettes that probably wound up killing her. Prepping to play the mother in The Glass Menagerie, she instead collapses in agony, and as she hates hospitals, she insists that she be taken to recover at the home of Peter (Jamie Bell) and his close-knit, working-class family in Liverpool.
Deliberately Golden-Age-Of-Hollywood-style storytelling devices allow Peter to flashback upon how he first met Gloria in 1979 in a London boarding house when he was an aspiring actor (although he’s always had to supplement his income by working with second-hand furniture). There was an initial attraction, as Peter realised who she was, and then there’s a funny sequence where they bop along to her favourite records (Bell pretends that he can’t dance) and a date at a cinema showing the film of the moment: the original Alien.
Time passes as the inevitable romance blossoms and intensifies, and Peter finds himself visiting Gloria in Los Angeles and New York, and despite their nearly 30 year age difference, they’re both seriously smitten, although Peter is a little troubled when he learns that Gloria has been married and divorced four times and has a child from each marriage. He isn’t put off after meeting her forgetful mother and spiteful sister (Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber in one scene), but fate soon intervenes. Back in 1981 it becomes increasingly clear that Gloria isn’t just suffering from what Americans call “gas”.
Director McGuigan allows ample scope for scenes with Peter’s warm, accepting family, and they’re a lovely bunch, with Julie Walters (Billy Elliot’s teacher) as matriarch Bella, Kenneth Cranham as Dad Joe and Stephen Graham as rough brother Joe Jr., yet this is primarily about Gloria and Peter (and note that the real Peter can be briefly spotted towards the end in the role of Jack). Quite the odd couple, they nevertheless seem perfectly suited, and Bening and Bell play them with plenty of heart, horny humour and a powerfully realistic, anti-Hollywood pain.
Rated M. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is in cinemas now.