Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens with Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) preparing to go on stage in a British production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Grahame regards herself in a backstage mirror, applying makeup, pouring milk into a wine glass, and eventually lighting a cigarette. We’re allowed to discern the peace that Grahame derives from this ritual, which has been honed from her decades of experience in the trade. It’s 1981 and Grahame is nearing the end of her life, dying of peritonitis and breast cancer. And Bening allows the audience to feel the weight of fame, self-consciousness, and sickness that hangs over Grahame, primarily with the playful yet heavy gestures of her eyes.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t continue to explore Grahame in such an intimate fashion. Detailing the relationship between Grahame and a much younger aspiring British actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), McGuigan concerns himself with the clichés of the May-December romance and of the love story that’s cut down by illness. There isn’t a sense that Grahame’s presence matters to the narrative, as Bening might as well be playing a fictional character. Yes, there are a few allusions to Grahame’s life, such as lingering shots of a lighter given to her by Humphrey Bogart, and a pointlessly mean-spirited reference to her infamous affair with Tony Ray, her soon-to-be ex-husband Nicholas Ray’s 13-year-old son, whom she married years afterward. But these references are little more than Easter eggs for cinephiles.
The film shows no interest in the inner workings of a relationship that’s defined by unusual circumstances. A romance between a young, untested actor and an icon might logically inspire at least one conversation in which the lovers discuss their trade. Or Turner’s discovery of Grahame’s penchant for young men might inspire insecurity or suspicion on his part. What of the contours of their sex life, which requires the navigation of numerous physical, cultural, and emotional differences between the parties? We never see either Turner or Grahame at work either, and we rarely feel the effect of this relationship on the remainder of their respective lives. Turner brings Grahame home to his working-class family, and his parents are almost laughably unperturbed by their son’s relationship with a troubled legend.
In place of these potential sources of drama are repetitive scenes in which Grahame and Turner generically fight and reconcile, which McGuigan dresses up with superficial flourishes. For no discernible reason, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool alternates between 1981 and a series of flashbacks detailing how Grahame and Turner met and developed a relationship a few years earlier. The chronological scrambling robs the narrative of what little urgency it has, and severs scenes off from one another, scattering the film into self-contained nodes. Meanwhile, derivatively stylish cinematography, contrasting the hot colors of Grahame’s life with those of Turner’s drab workaday existence, laboriously hints at un-broached turmoil and passion.
Bening and Bell lack the chemistry that’s necessary to transcend these shortcuts. Bening delivers her lines with a crackerjack wit that’s more in line with her own timing than Grahame’s—she came closer to Grahame’s vocal cadence in Stephen Frears’s The Grifters—though any style at all is appreciated in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Throughout, Bening does capture Grahame’s sensual rhythms in the way she uses her eyes, and in how she moves a half step slower than everyone else. Which is to say that Bening and Grahame’s respective iconographies merge, forging a fascinating composite that upstages Bell’s bland rendering of Turner. Of course, Turner is supposed to be upstaged, as he’s meant to be the typical coming-of-age youngling, but this rigid dichotomy drains the romance of friction. Grahame and Bening are ferocious actresses, and as such they deserve more than a sentimental, warmed-over fusion of Love Story and Venus.