Annette Bening gives Gloria Grahame a nobility rarely shown to faded actresses in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” a tender if generic portrait of aged glamour.
Based on the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, Paul McGuigan’s film joins the dubious movie genre about encounters with Hollywood royalty.
Grahame was one of the great black-and-white actresses: the “other” 1950s blonde bombshell with a soft, sweet voice. Grahame, a femme fatale of feline grace, could slip through a film, as the critic Judith Williamson wrote, “like a drop of loose mercury.”
She slinked through classic noirs like “Crossfire” and “The Big Heat,” played the flirtatious girl rescued by Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and won an Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful.” She was often the troubled tart or deadly seductress, but Graham’s personal life turned her into a real-life pariah. Her fourth, initially secret marriage was to her former stepson. He was 13 when their relationship began.
None of that, though, is the subject of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Grahame is in her final years, in exile, acting in regional theater while privately battling breast cancer. It’s well into the film before Grahame’s troubled past is alluded to. We are instead introduced to a vivacious woman still passionate for acting and for love. From the doorway of her Liverpool apartment, she asks a neighbor, Turner (Jamie Bell) to dance disco with her. Inspired by “Saturday Night Fever,” they groove to “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
Turner is drawn into her obit not because of her fame but because she’s still simply intoxicating. Admittedly, there are few clues besides her lighter inscribed by Humphrey Bogart. Soon, they’re attached at the hip, and jetting to New York and Los Angeles.
McGuigan frames their romance through snippets of memory, looking back from Grahame’s final days in 1981, two years after meeting Turner. There are colorful moments, but “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” never amounts to more than a slight, sideways view of Grahame, sorely lacking context.
Bening and Bell make for a May-December romance of touching warmth. Nearly two decades after debuting in “Billy Elliot,” Bell has matured into a potent screen presence.
What the Grahame of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is missing in detail, Bening makes up for in affection. Her performance is a kind of rebuke to the tragic Norma Desmond view of aging movie actresses. They deserve better, Bening seems to be suggesting. And this year, it’s never been easier to see just how right she is.