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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool has one major thing going for it: Annette Bening. Not only does she look like Gloria Grahame, the actress whom she is playing, but she has every bit of her down pat. Grahame, who was a star that almost no one but fans of old movies like me remembers, usually played the "bad girl," (or, as referenced in this film, the "tart") and won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (but if you want to check out her best work, I suggest The Big Heat, when she played Lee Marvin's moll). She was also in It's a Wonderful Life, as a girl named Violet, who makes men stop and stare at her as she walks down the street.

Based on a book by Peter Turner, who was her lover near the end of her life, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is about faded glamour and the pursuit of youth. Grahame was about sixty when she met Turner (Jamie Bell) and started an affair. He was an aspiring actor in London, while she was doing a play. There was about a thirty-year age difference. This is only mentioned once in the film, when back in California she introduces him to her sister, who brings up the fact that she once married her ex-stepson.

Grahame is suffering from breast cancer when she calls Turner from Manchester. He is back in Liverpool, the two having broken up (the why of this is not revealed until the end, although the savvy moviegoer may guess). She tells him it's bad indigestion and wants to recover at his house, where his mother (Julie Walters) can take care of him. He doesn't find out its cancer until after he phones her doctor (in an egregious example of violating patient privacy).

There are two parallel stories here: the relationship and the dying. Bening is about the same age as Grahame was then, so it's not hard to see how Bell was attracted to her. There haven't been a lot of films about May-December romances with the woman being older, so this is welcome to show one as being relatively healthy. Walters and her husband, Kenneth Cranham, are extremely non-judgmental. Bell's brother, Stephen Graham, is only upset because Grahame has upset the order of his mother's house, but when the chips are down, he's there for his younger brother.

What does't work about this film is that it's structured as a standard disease-of-the-week weepie. I think if I were a screenwriter or a director I would never want to make a movie about someone dying, because it's been done to death (pun intended). Why are we so fascinated with watching people, usually vital, die? Is it to comfort ourselves that we're not going through it? Is it simply morbid curiosity? I'll admit I got a little choked up and the end of this film, but it didn't hit me on a gut level. Grahame's life was a history of sad moments, but they deserve a better story than this.

I'll say again that Bening sure looks like her, which enables director Peter McGuigan to use actual footage of Grahame without it being a shock to the system. The film closes with her winning the Oscar, and her almost dazed walk up to the podium, where she grabs the statuette, says only, "Thanks very much," and goes off stage, almost in one movement.

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