Hollywood may have lost the moniker of “The Dream Factory,” but those dreams remain alive in the stories told about the Golden Era’s heyday. The latest in this genre of celebrity biopics is Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, a feature that hopes to play on the goodwill (and Oscar talk) established by the 2011 feature My Week With Marilyn. But where that film had an iconic figure whose narrative has been shaped over decades, Film Stars handles a more controversial figure with kid gloves. Oftentimes Film Stars is a vehicle more for male idealization than it’s flawed heroine.
Noir actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) was once a respected Academy Award-winner. But by the 1970s her star had dimmed, leaving her to take roles on-stage and abroad. She soon falls for aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) who, regardless of their age gap, is enchanted by Grahame leading to an enduring relationship that lasted till the actress’ death.
It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room when talking about a film focused on Grahame’s life, especially in the wake of numerous sexual assault allegations against prominent film figures. In 1960 Grahame married for the fourth time to Anthony Ray, the son of her second husband, director Nicholas Ray. Their relationship was hid for several years, but after their marriage was announced it was discovered their relationship started when Anthony was just 13. The allegations forever tarnished Grahame’s career and is one of the major reasons why she was floundering in the ’70s.
Unfortunately facts like these are of little consequence to the film, thrown out by Grahame’s jealous sister (played with boozy glee by Frances Barber) as a means of stirring the pot. It’s never brought up outside of this lone moment nor is there discussion of Grahame’s two children with Ray – the only child to appear in the film is the son she shared with Nicholas Ray. McGuigan and company couldn’t have foreseen how events in Hollywood would affect the story off-screen, but the movie seems completely content with ignoring how this factors into Grahame’s relationship with Turner.
Bening and Bell are wonderful together. Their relationship is initially built on fun, with an energetic disco dance as their introduction. From there the two fall quickly into domesticity, but their relationship fails to look deeper. This is partly a fault of the movie’s narrative device, jumping between the beginning/end of their relationship in the late-’70s and their reunion once Grahame falls ill in 1981. We’re meant to see how their relationship plays out, but it feels too idyllic.
This idyll is mainly from the fact that Turner was an active participant in the film’s production, so it’s understandable that this is his feature but that doesn’t make it worthwhile. Bell is charismatic, romantic, and fun. His Peter wants to take care of Gloria, a woman he lovingly refers to as “Glow,” but her temperamental attitude keeps him at arm’s length. As the film implies, Gloria is a woman too obsessed with her looks to truly realize how much Peter loves her. Where My Week With Marilyn attempted to show a star for who she was, warts and all, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool wants to show you how awesome it’s male character is; he could have changed Grahame’s whole life, if she wasn’t so damaged.
Film Stars does a serious disservice to its leading lady, impeccably played by Annette Bening. McGuigan makes the wise choice of avoiding similarities between his star and her real-life counterpart. Bening and Grahame have a passing resemblance, but McGuigan uses actual footage of Grahame in her films, as opposed to adding Bening in. The audience already knows Bening doesn’t look like Grahame 100% and, if anything, inspires those watching to seek out the real Grahame’s work. Bening conveys the earthy sensuality that made Grahame so compelling in works like In a Lonely Place. She’s enchanting, frustrating, sweet, sexy, sad. Bening makes the role her own and attempts to infuse something passing for human in what amounts to a shell of a character.
There’s so much of Grahame’s life left untouched by the script, instead using her as a focal point for male enlightenment. Grahame inspires Peter to change while sublimating her own desires; the film’s climax plays up the “if you love them, let them go” cliche to the nth degree. Her fears of aging are presented as overbearing, with no grander implications of how Hollywood played up those fears. The film avoids much of Grahame’s past in terms of how it shaped her future. The movie’s main intent is informing those who don’t know Grahame, so the colder you go in, the better.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool certainly loves its Old Hollywood trappings, but it fails to understand why audiences would want to see this. The movie’s take on Grahame doesn’t present anything compelling short of her relationships, yet it doesn’t want to taint the film’s perception of the character by bringing up the one relationship that was her downfall. Film Stars is a basic biopic that, in spite of its fantastic leads, doesn’t leave an impression.