Annette Bening does a lot of dying in ‘Liverpool’
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” tells the story of the last years of glamour star Gloria Grahame, a worthy subject; but the movie faces two challenges that are very hard to get around.
The first is that a good third or more of the movie depicts Grahame in 1981, when she was dying, and sickness has a way of making everyone the same.
She’s in bed, she’s weak, she’s sleeping.
Sometimes she’s in pain. Sometimes she’s eating. Sometimes she’s weary and appreciative. Sometimes she’s in a lonely place that no one can penetrate.
But these states would be the same for virtually anyone who dies of natural causes, whether it’s George Washington, Attila the Hun or Madame Curie.
A person’s claim to distinction is in the way they are in life; and in the case of Grahame, she was quite a character - a wild woman from start to finish. For example, director Nicholas Ray divorced her when he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son. Ten years later, she married the stepson.
And this brings us to the second and even more insurmountable obstacle. There’s only one actress who could have made complete sense of Gloria Grahame’s story, and that’s Grahame herself.
The movie is based on the book of the same name, by Peter Turner, who was Grahame’s lover in the last years of her life. They meet in England, when she is 54 and he is 26, when she asks to practice disco dancing with him, and you know how that goes: What happens on the dance floor rarely stays on the dance floor. To play Grahame, Annette Bening alters her usual manner and talks in Grahame’s breathy, girlish way. She does it well, but not so well that it ever seems entirely natural to her.
Indeed, one might say that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” makes emotional sense only to the extent that viewers can consciously force themselves to accept certain things that they would not accept spontaneously.
Among these are basic plot points: Why would Gloria/Bening be so attracted to this young man, so much as to invest in a relationship? And why would he be so intensely attracted to this former film star more than twice his age? In the playing, the relationship is like a premise inhabited by good actors, rather than something with an authentic visceral charge.
This is one case where watching some of another movie might help. “Chilly Scenes of Winter” (1979) was made right at the time Grahame was meeting Turner. If you watch a few scenes of Grahame in this, you’ll understand everything. At 54, Grahame seemed nutty and anarchic, as if something about her refused to mature. She wasn’t alert and radiantly curious, in the way that Bening is in her essence, but rather like someone who’d taken a nap for 30 years and had woken up, in every sense but chronologically, still 25.
So it probably seemed oddly appropriate when Grahame told Turner that she wanted to appear in “Romeo and Juliet,” not as the Nurse or Lady Capulet, but as Juliet. It probably didn’t seem pathetic or delusional, but reasonable within the emotional universe that surrounded her. But when Bening tells this to Jamie Bell, who plays Turner, it’s simply a weird note.
Here and there, particularly in flashback, Bening gets a scene or a moment to invest in and shine, but for truly a surprising length of time, Bening plays a woman who is asleep, literally. Apparently, Grahame, in some kind of denial about her condition, insisted on staying with her young lover’s family. So a good deal of the film is about the dynamic of these working-class English people with an Oscar-winning movie star in the upstairs bedroom.
Julie Walters, as the mother, is engaging as always; and director Patrick McGuigan attempts to liven things up with imaginative camera work, but there is no escaping the essential flaccidity of the story. Bening does a whole lot of dying here - it almost never stops. By the end, there’s not a dry eye on the screen, and not a wet eye in the audience.