Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is as sad and awkward as its title. Annette Bening plays the star in question, Gloria Grahame, the impudent minx who held her own against Humphrey Bogart in then-husband Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and took a face full of boiling water from boyfriend-thug Lee Marvin in The Big Heat — before her sudden and ignominious plunge from the A-list. The movie depicts Grahame’s grim final act. During a 1981 stint on the London stage in The Glass Menagerie, the 58-year-old Grahame travels to Liverpool to visit the family of her ex-boyfriend, the decades-younger actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and stays … and stays … and stays, her bed becoming her deathbed. It’s like the Kaufman-Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner if the man had terminal cancer. And if it wasn’t a comedy.
The frequent flashbacks give Bening something to play besides denial and dementia. When Grahame meets Peter at an upscale London boarding house, Bening makes the actress ostentatiously girlish, a whirligig cartoon. Her voice is high and breathy and beckoning: She seems to be leaning forward even as she waltzes away from him to turn on a phonograph. Watch Bening’s shining face in the weirdly giddy bit when Grahame and Turner go to Alien on their first date and she laughs out loud when the little doohickey busts out of John Hurt’s chest. (After the movie, Grahame says the “small things that pop out of your legs” — i.e., her kids — are as hard to control.) The best scene features Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber as Grahame’s mother and sister, the former feeding Grahame’s cheerful mania, the latter sourly bringing her sister down to earth — interfering with the willed obliviousness that helped Grahame maintain a semblance of balance.
It’s a thrill to see Bening in juicy parts like this, and the cast is everything you (and Bening) could hope for. A particular delight is Julie Walters, who makes Peter’s mum both deeply compassionate and hardheaded — so grounded that I kept thinking I’d like someone like her attending to me on my deathbed.) But Bening can’t supply what isn’t in the script. You have to pick up a biography to learn about Grahame’s four violent marriages — and how she bedded Ray’s son when the boy was 14 years old. (Her later marriage to “Nick Jr.” put the kibosh on her Hollywood career and lost her custody of the kids from her third marriage, to the abusive Cy Howard.) Seen through the eyes of Turner, Grahame is either maddeningly opaque or there’s no there there.
The director, Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein), has plainly prevailed upon the production designer Eve Stewart to elevate the mood with color, especially purples and pinks. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool isn’t visually drab, only conceptually. As a critic who often complains about biopics diverging too radically from the facts, I’m chagrined to find myself wishing the filmmakers had taken more liberties with Turner’s brief memoir. The book makes for an odd and melancholy coda to a crazy-volatile life, but the coda isn’t a microcosm for that life or even a particularly good prism through which to view Grahame’s rise and fall. As you watch Grahame suffer and act out and pretend her cancer is a passing stomach ailment, you want to know how and why she got to Liverpool, not how she’ll pass the time trying to forestall the inevitable as her organs shut down. The story is too bounded, like a theater piece. Even the title — uttered in the book by a man in a pub — supplies the wrong emphasis. On this side of the pond, Liverpool is associated with the Beatles, and what could be a hipper place to die than that?