Gloria Grahame was known for her very earthy, vigorous, sensual performances, as well as for her tumultuous personal life. In the late 1970s, more than two decades after winning the Oscar and long after the offers from Hollywood studios had dried up, she moved to England, trying to make a living doing bit parts in small theaters outside of London. That’s when she began her affair with the aspiring young actor Peter Turner, who documented their rocky relationship in his 1987 memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
In Paul McGuigan’s compassionate film adaptation of the book, Annette Bening stars as Grahame and Jamie Bell as Turner, and their electrifying performances not only give profound expression to universal themes of love and loss, but attest to the lifeblood of a woman whose career was compromised by her valiant refusal to be tamed by strict social roles.
Earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film played just a week after its world premiere at Telluride, I had the chance to sit down with Bening and Bell. Our talk ranged from their drive to capture the energy of Grahame and Turner’s complicated relationship to the responsibility of playing a real-life person whose legend has dimmed over the years.
Do you feel a certain responsibility when playing a real person?
Annette Bening: I do. For whatever reason, you can just go online and listen to all kinds of celebrity interviews, but there’s next to nothing when it comes to Gloria Grahame talking about herself. Her life was famously tempestuous, but there’s little out there about her feelings, about what she really thought. The book penned by Peter Turner is clearly from his point of view. By the way, meeting him was the most emotional and powerful thing I’ve experienced in a long time. I understood why Gloria fell in love with him. When I was reading about her to prepare, I got the feeling that a lot of relationships she had in her life were with people as difficult and as tempestuous as she was. She had a lot of destructive, sad relationships. Among many other things, there were some custody battles and divorces involved. I think the key to Gloria and Peter’s relationship was simplicity. There were all these other circumstances, like their age difference, that she was a movie star, he was from Liverpool—all these things aside and we have a love affair like any other.
Peter Turner was actively involved in the production of the film. Did he have any insights when it came to your performances?
Jamie Bell: We both had a mile-long list of questions about what it was like between them, what was missing from the book, and what they talked about. But he’s very protective of Gloria, as he should be. We’ve spent hours talking to him and asking him those questions, and while we did that, you could see him reliving certain moments. Like it was yesterday. It’s still so fresh for him. He’s a storyteller in his own right, but once you’ve talked to him for an hour or so you can see how exhausted he really is after sharing all these extremely intimate stories. However, Peter was very generous with his time and gracious enough to step back when we had to go and do it.
Bening: He’s an unusual, truly beautiful man. You know that there are things that he keeps to himself buried deep, and I find that particularly fascinating.
You both seem to be very passionate about the characters you portray in the film. What did you enjoy most about working with each other?
Bening: The pressure’s on! [laughs]
Bell: When I was sent the script, my reps kept telling me how huge a chance this would be to work with a great actor. They were very enthusiastic about telling me to really challenge myself. Well, it isn’t as easy as it may sound. I actually thought that this was a terrible idea. I mean, how can anyone even think that challenging yourself in front of Annette Bening is a good idea? [laughs] This was crazy, to be so exposed. But jokes aside, this film is built on the relationship, the love affair. It was extremely important, to me at least, to establish a good sense of solid trust in each other’s performances, because we embarked on some journey there! All those intimate moments, scenes when we had to be mad at each other, when we had to be tender and take care of one another, it really felt that without the trust we wouldn’t go anywhere. I always felt like we had each other’s backs. Even if we disagreed about something, if we wanted something different, we would back each other out at all times. That surely helped with the storytelling, the trajectory of our relationship. And we just had about 14 days to rehearse together.
Why did you think it was a terrible idea to expose yourself?
Bell: I was so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to match Annette. I still feel in some ways so inexperienced as an actor, that I’m still trying to find my foot in. It was all a little unfair to an actor to be put opposite such an actress, and I can only hope I managed.
How did you find your way into building such a deep relationship with Annette with just a two-week rehearsal period?
Bell: We knew that the movie would live or die based on this relationship. We had to push it even further, make the stakes higher, the outbursts more intense. But to be honest, it’s part of the trade, a magic trick that happens when you perform alongside wonderful actors.
How about the challenges in showing the extremely demanding, physical aspects of the story?
Bening: If there was anything that kept me up at night it was the authenticity of Gloria’s illness. There are certain things that happen to people who are very ill. That’s hard to watch. It also really traumatizes the relationship. It was very important to show that Peter loved Gloria and took care of her when she was in the critical position that she was in. That remained the most challenging part of that performance. Apart from that, I watched many of Gloria’s movies, and tried to find the essence of her without doing the imitation.
Has your understanding of Gloria changed? Is she a little less elusive now?
Bening: One of the crucial things for me when I tried to get to Gloria was talking to Peter. But as I said before, he wouldn’t disclose all the things that I needed to know. For instance, why she had such a hard time finding work pretty much already after Oklahoma! I still don’t quite understand. I don’t know how much of that was because of her personal life. I think a lot. She did quite a few things to make a living, like a very bad horror movie in the ’70s. She also started doing plays again. But it wasn’t Broadway or West End, but some tiny theaters in Wisconsin! She was having a really hard time. When she met Peter, she was performing in Rain by Somerset Maugham at the Watford Palace on the outskirts of London. They’d usually play “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” at the end of the play, just to remind everyone who she was and what she did before and that’s kind of sad really. But she was patient. She’d rather tell them to just go on with it, because she needed to make a living. I was very curious about all these personal issues, but I also had to accept that there was a lot I couldn’t find out about her.
I’m curious to know which is your favorite Gloria Grahame film.
Bening: In a Lonely Place. She was married to Nicholas Ray at the time and they were breaking up and it was very hard, but the film is brilliant. Humphrey Bogart was very nice to her when they did that film, he was about 20 years older than she was when they were making it. From what I gathered, Bogart was very protective of her when it came to her marriage with Ray. Both Gloria and Nicholas were known for their tempers, unlike Bogie.
How do you think Gloria would feel seeing you play her in the film?
Bening: I think she’d feel exposed. I don’t want to romanticize her. There’s a certain dignity in this character, despite all that’s been going on around her. I hope I’ve given her justice.
In the end of the film you’re showing real clips of Gloria receiving her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful. It’s incredible how much these ceremonies changed over the past decades.
Bening: The time she got her Oscar you can see that she wasn’t even wearing much makeup and it looks like she just walked out of the house in any dress she could find. She didn’t pay much attention to it anyway.
Bell: I think those were the first televised Oscars. No one knew then what the expectations would become and what a person has to wear to those events because they weren’t of the caliber that they are today. She didn’t even think about thanking anyone in particular. She just said, “Thank you.”
Annette, you’ve been nominated for four Oscars already. Do you have any speech planned for when you receive your award?
Bening: By now it’s in my nature to have to think about that. It’d be strange if I didn’t. Vanity is in our veins. I’ve been around for so many years and things have changed so quickly in that time. The technology feels as if it’s ahead of us. We’re trying to fill in the content, all these blank spaces. In a way, at least to some people, it becomes all about the quietness of the work at the end of the day. In the past few years I started thinking much more about how the things we as actors do in terms of media is dissimilar to the work. We get dragged more and more into the commerce of the business. And it’s a little unfortunate for the craft. In a way, I’m really grateful that social media didn’t exist when I started to work. Now that I’m established I don’t have to take part in all that—to do the things I don’t want to do.
Gloria didn’t have to deal with all that either, but she was concerned about her physical appearance. How do you relate to that sort of pressure?
Bening: I have vanity. I think we all do. But I’m interested in just being an actress. I always thought I’d be an actress my entire life, although I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do this forever. Probably not. My goal is to try to be in the age that you are or close to it in terms of who you’re playing. What matters is trying to find the authentic experience. I just worked with the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave, who’s 80 and absolutely stunning. And I think that’s the direction we all need to follow.