Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017) 1½ out of 4 stars.
The actress Gloria Grahame died in 1981, at the age of 55, mostly forgotten by an industry that had once celebrated her in the late 1940s and early 1950s. To me, she will always be Ado Annie in the 1955 cinematic adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! To others, she may be Humphrey Bogart’s foil in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 In a Lonely Place (she was married to Ray, one of an eventual four husbands, at the time). To still others, she could be Dick Powell’s ill-fated wife in Vincente Minnelli’s epic 1952 take on Hollywood, The Bad and the Beautiful, or perhaps the (also) ill-fated gangster’s moll in Fritz Lang’s raw and violent 1953 film noir The Big Heat, opposite a very angry Glenn Ford. I’m sure everyone who knows her work has his or her favorite(s). Unfortunately, she was also known for sleeping with her 13-year-old stepson (son of Ray), and though the boy would, once a man, become her fourth husband, the scandal, coupled with a reputation for being difficult, caused her star to wane faster than it might have, otherwise. Hers was a sad and sordid life.
And now we have a film about its end. With the great Annette Bening (20th Century Women) as Grahame, it’s a certainty that the central performance is strong. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie is not. Based on the book of the same name by Peter Turner – a British stage actor and former lover of Grahame’s – the film adopts a meandering, achronological structure that is stimulating only because its disjointedness obfuscates the plot enough to keep us grasping for narrative threads. We meet Grahame in Liverpool – where the much younger Turner lives – as she is dying of cancer, in complete denial about the severity of her disease. From there we flash back to how the two met, became an item, and then fell out. Though there are moments of bright humor, thanks to the easy rapport between Bening and Jamie Bell (6 Days), as Turner, the story never escapes a maudlin melancholy as dreary as the seemingly perpetual rain in Liverpool.
There’s nothing wrong with elegy, but it needs to be anchored in genuine sentiment and, in the case of an actual historical person like Grahame, a clear-eyed assessment of her strengths and weaknesses. Sadly, the film glosses over the worst parts of its subject’s past, including the affair with her stepson (a truly inexcusable sin), leading one to question the veracity of its other details. Grahame was, like most human beings, complex, and we can surely celebrate the legacy of her enduring film roles without ignoring her unfortunate biography. As it is, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool comes across mostly as a wasted opportunity, squandering what could be an interesting exploration of a May-September romance (with the usual genders reversed) by devolving into a half-baked tribute to a controversial figure. Turner can keep his story to himself. Bening and Bell deserve better. Heck, even Grahame deserves better.