“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and Gloria Grahame’s Defiant Power

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The rise of talking pictures coincided with the Great Depression. The
ostensible golden age of the studios paralleled the darkest days of the
thirties. Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” released two months and two
days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, sparked an artistic revolution
amid the Second World War’s stifled traumas. Current-day Hollywood
contrives its public self-image from the phantoms and the fumes of the
classic studio era; in the process, it evokes, with a fallacious
longing, the hard-knock times that high-studio movies symbolize. The
latest revenant of reflected glory is in not a Hollywood movie but a
British one—“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on the British
actor Peter Turner’s memoir about his relationship with the Hollywood
luminary Gloria Grahame, which began in 1978 (when she was fifty-four
and he was twenty-six) and lasted until her death, in 1981.

As the title of Turner’s brisk, poignant book suggests, it’s the story
of how Grahame, one of the most celebrated (and, to my mind, one of the
best) movie actors of the nineteen-fifties, ended up being nursed
through her final illness by him and his pleasantly unexceptional,
warmly conventional working-class English family (who offer
an extraordinary breadth of generosity and depth of emotion). The book’s
strength is found in its sketches of surprising personal connections
through a diverse range of places and settings: Turner and Grahame met
in London, visited California and Las Vegas, and lived together in New
York before Turner returned to Liverpool and, after a break in their
relationship, was summoned to London to gather Grahame there and deal
with her failing health. Turner, a working actor of local renown, found
himself in contact with a legend whose way of life had become
surprisingly ordinary but whose personality retained its grandeur, whose
every casual remark resonated with the weight of a past that was
populated by potentates and geniuses and by fierce conflicts—intimate,
public, and historical.

Like Turner’s book, the movie (directed by Paul McGuigan, written by
Matt Greenhalgh) depends on this split—the ordinariness of the life of a
former star. When Turner and Grahame meet—in real life, in 1978; the
film has it as 1979—her career was greatly reduced. She played small
roles in good movies (such as Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard”), but
she mainly worked in theatre, to mild acclaim. Yet at the point that she
and Turner meet—she’s in London doing a play and living in a simple
apartment in a modest residential building in Primrose Hill; he’s her
upstairs neighbor, working in a store and auditioning for roles—her
movie-star fire still smolders.

It’s in the scenes of Grahame’s early London encounters with Turner that
Annette Bening’s incarnation of Grahame is most persuasive. She gives
off the star’s contained heat, tossing off flinty sarcasms and
sharp-elbowed imperiousness with a casual impulsivity. But, for much of
the action that follows, the character of Grahame is infused with
Bening’s own Northern California vibe, and, even more significant, the
hard-edged tension of Grahame’s generation of Hollywood notables is
replaced by the more easygoing patience of modern times. Grahame, whose
onscreen default expression, in her years of peak performance, was a
proud sneer that transcended peevishness and defied the world at large,
was a tighter, snarlier character than the open, receptive Bening. For
that matter, a glance at archival shots of Turner reveals a sunnier,
more freewheeling air than that displayed by the pursed and earnest Jamie Bell.
For much of the film, the casting seems off, and that fault isn’t
Bening’s but McGuigan’s. But, as Turner, in his book, depicts Grahame
near the end of her life (in the six days that she spent in Liverpool
before leaving with her children for New York, where she died the day
she arrived), she’s just as sharp-edged and stone-tough as in earlier
times.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” omits many of the best incidents in
the book, in which Grahame speaks freely and sharply of her past and of
its prominent characters. It also omits the politics, terse but sharp,
that Turner cites in the book: “Gloria loathed right wing politics and
politicians. ‘I can’t stand the sight of Ronnie Reagan,’ she said. ‘I’d
like to stick my Oscar up his arse!’ ” The movie also makes a few useful
changes and additions. It tweaks, to fine advantage, the book’s central
incidents, involving the misunderstandings and deceptions that led to
Turner and Grahame’s breakup. (If only the entire movie sustained that
level of inspiration.)

And it adds some dialogue and a scene to address a story that Turner
refers to only glancingly in the book: it has been widely reported that,
in 1951, Grahame’s second husband, the director Nicholas Ray—who made
her greatest film, “In a Lonely Place,” an agonized romance and also a
film noir rooted in postwar trauma—returned home to find Grahame in bed
with his son, Tony, who was thirteen years old at the time. (Nine years
later, Grahame and Tony Ray married.) In the movie, this tale is
maliciously disclosed to Turner by Grahame’s sister, Joy (Frances
Barber). When Turner asks Grahame, with a judgmental severity, whether
the story is true, she says, “No, but everybody in this town’s already
made up their mind. I’m just sick of the yapping. You gotta think what
you wanna think.” In a recent
interview
,
Bening discussed the film’s added sequence about Grahame’s relationship with the teen-ager: “I guess it was such an unforgettable fact, but we
didn’t really dwell on it, and a lot of people even miss it in the movie.
But it happened and I think it made a big stamp on Gloria.” (Nothing in
the film suggests that it had any effect on Grahame at all.)

The independence of temperament that Grahame displayed in her movies
wasn’t far from the way that she lived her life—and it’s one of the
prime virtues of classic Hollywood films that their extreme techniques
of artifice nonetheless served a peculiar transparency of performance.
The vast machine of illusion, the mechanics of sets and costumes, makeup
and studio craft didn’t mask or disguise the personality of its
actors—at least, not of the best of them—but revealed it. (That’s why
most of the best classic actors aren’t the ones with the best technique
or the finest craft but the strongest presence.) That’s also why the
film’s failure to develop the book’s more ample view of Grahame—her
presence, her temperament, her smart insights and reminiscences—is
doubly regrettable. Above all, the subject of “Film Stars Don’t Die in
Liverpool” is cinematic failure—whether the failure of the world of
movies to find a place for Grahame in the nineteen-sixties and seventies,
or Grahame’s own failure to keep up with new ideas and changing forms of
the art. McGuigan, telling the story of Grahame and Turner in a way
that’s psychologically simplistic and dramatically thin, makes his film
timeless in the worst way: it has little to say about the era in which
the action takes place, the earlier days in which Grahame made her name,
or, for that matter, about today.

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