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Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Released 2017. Director: Paul McGuigan

IF YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF THE STORY OF GLORIA GRAHAME AND PETER TURNER, you’re not alone. Media obsession with the minutiae of celebrity gossip these days was not as widespread and invasive back in the 1970s, and that’s probably one of the reasons this romance has not caught on in public imagination.

In 1979, Gloria Grahame was doing a play in London when she met struggling actor Peter Turner. Back in the ‘50s Gloria was a Hollywood star, an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress. Two decades later, her star was all but dim when she met Peter. They struck up an easy friendship which turned into a deeper relationship despite an age gap of 29 years.

Based on Peter’s memoir and adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhalgh, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a love story that’s open-hearted, open-armed, and immeasurably inviting. Director Paul McGuigan draws us into an intimate relationship like friends at a small after-dinner chat over drinks. The movie he’s made is a reverie, a celebration as well as a tragic romance the kind Hollywood finds hard to resist.

The couple’s genuine affection and devotion to each other is evident. If there were any reservations about their age difference they were well concealed. Gloria’s mother and sister, however, were not able to share the happiness and tried to wedge the couple at Peter's visit.

Contrast this with the understanding of the Turner family back in Liverpool, especially the unquestioning love from Peter’s mother. When Gloria stayed in the spare bedroom in Peter’s parents’ house, she was on her last days dying of cancer but Peter’s mother cared for her like family. It's a pity we don't get to see how Gloria grew so emotionally attached to the Turner family in the early days.

Annette Bening captures the fading glow of a Hollywood femme fatale with lightness and sadness. An actress playing an actress, Bening luxuriates in a persona that radiates warmth, playfulness and a stubborn sense of romanticism. I can’t tell if Jamie Bell was intimidated to do love scenes with Annette Bening but he was convincing. His stricken lover is blessed with youthful exuberance as well as maturity. Jamie’s co-star in Billy Elliot (2000), Julie Walters, plays his mother in a firm supporting performance that anchors the unconditional support her family shows towards this ill-fated romance.

When a movie interweaves past and present, relying on a character’s memory to relay details and feelings, it’s often hit or miss. McGuigan has a lovely touch in juxtaposing the different places and times, often involving someone turning down a hallway or opening a door. Peter’s reminiscence of his first visit to Los Angeles to see Gloria is tinged with a hazy and gauzy quality, suffused with colours, lights, laughter and sunsets on the beach made for romantic evenings.

As her career was fading and health deteriorating, Gloria probably never dreamed that her own story would one day be made into a Hollywood movie. It’s a commendable decision that the last shot should show the real Gloria Grahame at the Oscars and not re-enacting with Annette Bening or using CGI to insert her face on the historical footage. What would have been nice as well was an image of Gloria and Peter together as a parting shot. So the pair would live on forever in the movies.


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