Monday, January 22, 2018

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool: A Farewell to Gloria

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

The stunning blonde character actress Gloria Grahame brought more than just her trademark pout to movies like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (where Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar), Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. She made her characters’ vulnerability touching and sexy at the same time. But her Hollywood heyday lasted only about a decade, though she continued to work, on screen and on stage, until she died at fifty-seven of stomach cancer and peritonitis in 1981. Annette Bening, who plays Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is inspired casting, just as Michelle Williams was as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and like Williams she gives a magnificent performance, on par with her best work (Bugsy, The Grifters, In Dreams). The movie is about the last two years of Grahame’s life and her relationship with an aspiring young English actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she meets when he’s only twenty-eight. (Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based on Turner’s memoir.) It begins when she collapses in her dressing room during rehearsals for a production of The Glass Menagerie in the English provinces and Peter, no longer involved with her, shows up to bring her home to Liverpool, where his adoring parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take her in and care for her. It’s clear from Peter and Gloria’s reunion that their romance ended badly; we see it in a series of flashbacks to London in 1979, where they met while staying in the same boarding house, and Los Angeles and New York, where he visited her. Her reappearance in his life reactivates his feelings for her, just as he learns what she carefully concealed from him when they were lovers: that she’s dying.

The flashback structure is quite complicated, and the director, Paul McGuigan (who did four of the early Sherlock episodes), stylizes it by having Peter walk in and out his memories as if they were movies. The film even includes two versions of the break-up (in New York), the first from his point of view, the second from Gloria’s, a scene that Turner obviously couldn’t have included in his memoir. Greenhalgh and McGuigan don’t pull off the trickier scenes, but that doesn’t really matter because the actors do, and McGuigan’s work with them – indeed, with the entire cast – is remarkably sensitive and modulated. Peter has a working-class kid’s tough, profane exterior, and his face always seems guarded, but Bell shows us how he gives himself over emotionally to Gloria. I’ve always liked Bell, whose lyricism keeps taking you off guard and who never signals where his character is going, but his tender portrayal of Peter goes deeper than he’s had a chance to go in anything else he’s done. Walters, Cranham and Stephen Graham as Peter’s brother Joe do so much with their handful of scenes that afterwards you remember them as spending more time on camera than they actually do. There’s not enough of them, especially since the movie has omitted the history of their relationship with Gloria. There are no flashbacks to explain how Gloria became such a favorite of Bella Turner especially, or why, while she’s still trying to persuade Peter that she’s not seriously ill, she insists that a few days in his mother’s care is all the restorative she needs. I assume McGuigan shot scenes that sketch in the details and they ended up on the cutting-room floor. Isabella Laughland has a nice sequence as an actress pal of Peter who visits him and Gloria in New York after getting off a cruise-ship gig, but there’s not much context to explain her role in his life. On the other hand, the sole brief glimpse we get of Gloria’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave), an aging actress who glories in her past, and Gloria’s poisonous, competitive sister (Frances Barber), tells us everything we need to know about that family – and Redgrave manages to paint an entire character in three or four minutes. (This isn’t Redgrave’s only memorable work on screen in the past year, but no one saw her phenomenal performance in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture because the movie never got released. It’s available on Netflix.)

Grahame’s baby-doll voice wasn’t that far from Bening’s own (it was higher and tinier), and Bening gets her playfulness and her been-around-the-block charm and the way she could bring her entire focus to bear on a man in a conversation. It’s high-octane-sexy; you can see why, when they’re together, Bell’s Peter walks around like he’s been kissed by an angel – and why, when she suddenly turns remote, he looks like he’s been locked out in the cold (which is more or less what happens). But Bening also gives her a sunken quality, the sense that something hard and weighty is pulling against her floating vibrancy. These opposite impulses occupy a real battleground in the remarkable scene where, after calling her doctor in L.A., Peter tells her he knows what’s wrong with her and she shakes herself, as if she could simply toss those unhappy thoughts out of her head. The cancer isn’t Gloria’s only demon. She has a history of romantic attachments to much younger men (she married her own stepson, Anthony Ray, whose father, Nicholas, had directed her in In a Lonely Place), and she’s insecure about being seen as too old for Peter – as an aging dame who’s just getting her kicks. When she tells Peter that she wants to play Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his hesitation sets off those insecurities; so does a moment between them at a Manhattan restaurant when she wants him to tell her how she looks and, sure she won’t like (or believe) his answer, she doesn’t give him a chance to offer one.  Peter negotiates these vulnerable moments sweetly and skillfully, and he doesn’t have to fake it. To him, she’s a knockout – always. And my God, she really is. The only time he can’t shift her mood is when she’s determined to end their love affair, and he doesn’t have any idea why. When Bening lets us see her turned-away face, in the replay of their break-up, it’s lined with anguish.

McGuigan makes fine use of José Feliciano’s plaintive cover of “Calfornia Dreamin’” and, over the end credits, Elvis Costello’s “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way.” Both selections underscore the movie’s valedictory tone. It gets to you.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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