‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ Sparkles with Bening’s Performance of A Woman’s Struggle with Aging

By Tracy Wang

Most-remembered by her roles in Hollywood film noir projects, Gloria Grahame is brought back to life in ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’. Based on the memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, the film follows Grahame’s final years (between 1979-1981) and embarks on a journey to unveil the romance between Grahame and Turner. Full of drama, personality and liveliness, Bening’s version of Grahame is large enough to carry us through Grahame’s final years which are filled with a surprising amount of romance, family drama and commentary on the sunset years of a famous actress.

It is pre-show, and Grahame (Annette Bening) is putting on makeup and costume for her performance in a Liverpool theatre production. Just before the show starts, she collapses. A phone call reaches Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) whose home is in Liverpool; he brings Grahame back from the hospital, and takes her to his family house. Though she repeatedly tells them she just has some gas issue, nobody really believes that, and gloom seems to set into their house. As he takes care of her, he remembers how they first met in an apartment in London when Grahame had the big name, and Turner was just an actor looking to be cast in some productions.

Sparks fly as they continue to hang out, and soon their relationship becomes a romantic one. Because of her, he visits California and New York City, and spends a lot of time with her. Their relationship gradually turns to a serious one, and Turner is clearly committed. However, Grahame is continuously bothered by her aging appearance and her fading fame. Often romantic and easy-going, Grahame is sensitive when it comes to her age, and more than once, she is angered by a wrong reaction from Turner (him jokingly says she is more suitable to be in the role of the Nurse than that of Juliet). As they find out her cancer is back, the family is divided in what they should do for her. Will their romantic relationship last? What should he do for her when she is so ill?

The film takes on a May-December relationship, and interestingly, Grahame is often the one who is in control in this relationship. Though mostly romantic and light-hearted, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ in truth deals with many significant themes such as aging, fame, family, and appearances. Even though the characters can be vastly different (take the glorious Grahame and Bella (Julie Walters), Turner’s mother, who is only dominant in her own household), they are all dealing with the same fear, the insecurity of some sort, whether it is the fear of taking the airplane for the first time, or the fear of others knowing too well of how ill she is. They are all afraid, and they all choose to mask their fears, but when they come together, they are exactly what each other needs (Grahame asking Bella to have courage to stay over at Manila for the chance of seeing her son, Bella treating Grahame as her own daughter though they cannot be far apart in age etc.).

Similarly, the film is also being masked as a romance with Bening’s beautiful performance of Grahame. She is energetic. She is flirty. She sparkles of youth, excitement and buoyancy. We see a woman who is almost never afraid of falling in love or being loved, but under a closer look, the cinematography and many of the scenes ooze fear, insecurity and foreboding. When the film begins with Grahame’s profile in a mirror, her taking out everything from her cosmetic bag, and the close-ups on her face, we see an aging actress who has given the audiences so much, and who is still trying to give. With the ending having her being carried down the stairs, putting everything back into her cosmetic bag and her face complete in makeup and a large pair of sunglasses, we again find an actress who tries hard to retain what she had, and we are shocked by the contrast of the flirty Grahame and the one who could not even walk down the stairs on her own. Together with the script that has many instances of her focusing on her beauty and appearance, we witness a woman who is more beaten down by the loss of her beauty and youth than by the cancer cells that are literally eating her up.

Playing the romantic counterpart of Grahame, Bell brings about a man who is deeply in love. Sparks fly between Bening and Bell, and we too are quickly entangled in their relationship. When we are presented with the most emotionally-charged scene (Grahame and Turner reading the lines of Romeo and Juliet as Romeo and Juliet), we are touched by the tenderness Turner kisses Grahame, and we are not at all ready to let go of that moment.

A film that is mostly a romance, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ touches us in many unexpected ways; if you want a romance that is spiced up with many other themes, or a film that is talking as much about romance as it is talking about a woman’s challenges in letting go of her identity that she has been holding on for so long, you want to watch ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’.