Not all Oscar bait is created equal. Glenn Close trolling the Academy with 2011’s shameless Albert Nobbs isn’t in the same wheelhouse as her fellow always-a-bridesmaid Annette Bening, who actually seems, whatever the performance, like there are plenty of other motivators for her work beyond gold-plated statuettes. Make no mistake, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, in which Bening plays aging Hollywood icon Gloria Grahame, is a tailor-made awards showcase, but the actress doesn’t settle for mere look-at-me mimicry.
Bening nails Grahame’s hyperventilator’s voice and flighty demeanor, as well as the seemingly out-of-nowhere sultriness that, for example, Nicholas Ray (Grahame’s second husband) used to striking effect in the 1949 noir A Woman’s Secret. Yet Bening also gives you a full sense of Grahame’s often-tortured depths, be it the obsession with her looks (her upper lip being the prime offender) or the scandal she courted. A prime plot point here is her marriage to Ray’s stepson, Anthony, in 1960, which led to the waning of a film career that included such highlights as 1950’s In a Lonely Place and 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, for which she won a supporting actress Oscar.
Film Stars is based on the 1987 memoir by British actor Peter Turner, who was several decades Grahame’s junior, and who became her romantic partner and caretaker in the final years of her life. As played by a terrific Jamie Bell, Turner is a seething sexpot in the vein of David Hemmings in Blow-Up. Witness Turner’s magnetic cock-of-the-walk hip-shaking with Grahame as they dance to a Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Both Bell and Bening build up a suitably affecting chemistry that intriguingly mutates from moment to moment. In some scenes, like that seductive dance, Turner is the aggressor. In others, as when he and Grahame catch an afternoon matinee of Ridley Scott’s Alien, she takes the reins, loudly guffawing at all the stomach-bursting gore while Turner and the rest of the audience cower in fright.
Director Paul McGuigan keeps things uncharacteristically restrained, giving both performers the space to work these occasional wonders with material that holds your interest even as it, ultimately, goes to all the places you’d expect. Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham lend able support as Turner’s parents Bella and Joe, who reluctantly open their home to Grahame in her final days. And Vanessa Redgrave has a fine single scene as Grahame’s mother, Jeanne McDougall, who masks her disappointments in her daughter in a thinly veiled aura of dizzy gentility. McGuigan’s few keyed-up aesthetic flourishes, notably some kitschy rear-projection in the film’s California-set scenes, actually prove more than apt to the story of a woman whose life frequently resembled the heated movie melodramas that made her name.
A rare bad performance from Denzel Washington sinks Roman J. Israel, Esq., writer-director Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to 2014’s Nightcrawler. Like that film, this is an L.A. story, though set in the world of defense attorneys. Washington plays the title character, an idiot-savant civil rights lawyer far outside his time, with a poorly maintained afro, oversize glasses, and loose-hanging wardrobe that makes him look and come off like Cornel West’s introvert brother. Roman’s ordered life is upended after the head of the firm that he works at falls into a coma. The shark-like George (Colin Farrell), a real go-getter solicitor, is tasked with dissolving the business and, in a rare moment of empathy, brings Roman into his much-more corporatized operation.
From there, the film becomes an unconvincing morality play in which Roman attempts to hold tight to his righteous ideals, fails miserably, then works to redeem himself through metaphorical and literal sacrifice. Washington stumbles his way through each scene, doing his best to bury his innate charisma via a number of irritatingly tic-ish mannerisms (like pushing his drooping specs up the bridge of his nose every 30 seconds or so). Jake Gyllenhaal did similarly twitchy work in Nightcrawler, but there his efforts were given a near-surreal context, as the character’s sociopathy seemed a natural extension of L.A.’s tabloid seediness, captured brilliantly in Robert Elswit’s luxuriantly scuzzy nighttime photography. Elswit returns for Roman J. Israel, but this time—with the exception of an interlude at and around the Santa Monica pier—the city feels like an anonymous Anywhere, U.S.A. And so Washington’s ill-conceived character stands out like a sore thumb, the shallow center of Gilroy’s unfortunate sophomore slump.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7–17.