Director: Paul McGuigan
Screenplay: Matt Greenhalgh
Based on the memoir by: Peter Turner
Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Colin Vaines
Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, Leanne Best.
When Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame won a Best Supporting Actress award at the 1953 Oscars for an eight-minute appearance in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), it must have seemed her future as an A-list actress was assured. Instead she was usually cast as a slightly trashy or seductive femme fatale in B-movies, aside from her memorable role as the irrepressible Ado Annie in the film version of Oklahoma! (1962).
In later years she was reduced to appearing in a number of stage productions in America and England, which is where she met the young Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner, half her age, in a boarding house in London during the 1970s. Their unusual romance was later documented in his memoir, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which describes their initial romance as well as their reunion a few years later when both were older and a bit wiser.
The movie’s basic focus on the couple’s time together in Liverpool, where Peter lives with his parents and brother, and Gloria moves into one of their bedrooms while recovering from an illness, is fairly straight forward in a narrative sense. The film is shot on location in drab, wet Liverpool streets, often at night or dusk, in a grittily realistic way that reflects the once glamorous actress’s fading looks. Peter’s home and family are ordinary but comfortable, which juxtaposes with Gloria’s Hollywood lifestyle.
What lifts this movie out of the ordinary is Annette Bening’s depiction of a once-glamorous and increasingly insecure movie star, facing an uncertain future and battling to retain her looks that are all she believes she has to offer. She is wonderful in a role demanding someone who, despite being in her late fifties, has the allure and mystery required to catch the attention of a much younger man.
Bening is incredibly brave in letting the camera see her at her haggard worst, with unflattering lighting and no makeup. The flashback scenes set a mere handful of years earlier in the late 1970s show how attractive she was, and help explain why Peter fell for her despite her diva mood swings.
There were challenges adapting the book, particularly how to convey the shifts between the “present” 1980s Liverpool and the late 1970s London, New York and California, but these are effectively achieved through a traditional if old fashioned movie device of opening a door onto another time and place – also done to great effect in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and even briefly in a scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).
The scenes set in California and New York have a radiant or hazy glow usually associated with a romanticised memory and work effectively, although the limited budget dictated these scenes had to be created using rear projection. This just adds to the sensation of watching a movie that Grahame might have acted in, so rather than being jarring, they add to the sensation of experiencing a movie-star romance.
This film is not an action blockbuster or CGI-laden extravaganza, just a slowly paced, gently depicted May-December romance with lots of quiet, dialogue-free moments that allow the characters’ emotions to breathe and fill the frame, while the final scenes showing the real Gloria Grahame in her prime let the audience appreciate what a loss this actress was to Hollywood.
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