To age in an industry that often values beauty standards and age over talent is especially difficult for women of cinema. In recent years, certain genres of film seem to have become typecast, with young, charismatic leading ladies assuming these roles over and over again. And so it becomes more and more difficult to find roles written for more mature leading ladies in these types of films (especially in Romances), but every once in a while, a film comes along that proves that a leading lady is a leading lady both despite and because of her age. And in the case of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Annette Bening’s turn is one that proves that more roles should be written for Hollywood’s older women.
Exploring themes of fame, aging, death, and love against the backdrop of old Hollywood and to the classic tunes of the likes of Elvis Costello, the film chronicles the final years in the life of Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame’s (Bening) life when she struck a romance with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring theater actor about two decades her junior.
One of her most riveting performances — and one that speaks to the aforementioned point — Bening’s Gloria is one that is so fascinatingly nuanced and complex that there is never a dull moment on screen. The role offers the Oscar-nominated actress a range that explores the best and worst times of Grahame’s life and character. But it is the years of experience Bening carries that Gloria truly connects with the viewer.
In Gloria, we see a starlet unable to reconcile with the effects getting older has had on her career and her physical appearance. She latches, perhaps unconsciously, onto anything that could make her feel younger in a desperate attempt to salvage her what’s left of her perception of youth. And it is in the short seconds of outbursts and meltdowns she has that this narrative comes out, prompting questions about why Grahame would move to theater as opposed to continuing in film, for example. In a youthful, deeply emotional, and refreshing performance, Bening accomplishes what Gloria was never able to: solidify her status as a veteran of the screen in a way that is so rarely triumphant.
That being said, in a climate where abuse of all kinds is being highlighted, celebrating the life of Gloria Grahame, if even a small part of it, seems like a losing battle. In the space of a decade in the 40s and 50s, Grahame, like many at the time, married several men and gave birth to a child from each of marriage, but it’s her last stint as a married woman that attracted the attention of tabloids and had a huge toll on her rising career. The actress reportedly seduced the 13 year-old son of her second husband, and married him years later. And while this is referenced in passing in the film, the rest of the story does well to glorify her, which is somewhat understandable considering the source material is Peter Turner’s titular biography.
Therein lies the main issue of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. The film is somewhat limited by Gloria’s real life in that it is never able to escape it, never fully delving into it, but also being informed by it. That restriction creates a lot of confusion as to what the film is trying to accomplish: an ode to a Hollywood starlet or the romance between two unsuspecting motel tenants. Free from the former, the film would have benefitted significantly. That is, the film could and should have been about a former Hollywood star as opposed to being about the Gloria Grahame. It would have left a much deeper mark and rid the screenwriter (Matt Greenhalgh) of the responsibility of personalising the role so much.
I stress this because at the heart of the film is a romance so powerfully-told that it commands, forcefully, the attention of the viewer thanks to the performances of its two leads. But as good as Annette Bening is, it’s Jamie Bell’s gripping performance as the star-crossed, swooning Peter Turner that the viewer will carry with them.
His is the doomed love story of the modern-day Everyman (points for that forced but welcome confession on the beach!) that appeals to the viewer more, both because of the seemingly ordinary life he leads and because of the extravagance of his counterpart. Informed by the tragic portrait of death the film paints, Bell’s Peter grapples with his lover’s numbered days as he, too, loses a bit of himself with each passing moment. It is in his restriction, his unwavering refusal to break his strong front, that the performance is so resoundingly moving. And it is something to behold. If for any reason you decide to watch Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, it should be for that.