Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Gloria Grahame is not exactly a household name, but in 1952 she won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her performance in The Bad and the Beautiful. By 1981, when this film begins, she was just another faded American star, working on the stage and reduced to doing her own makeup (it’s a beautiful opening scene, with Gloria sitting in front of the mirror in her dressing room, accompanied by the piano from Elton John’s Song For Guy). By this time she was also critically ill with cancer. When the disease brings her down, she calls on the last love of her ‘colourful’ life, Peter, a younger man whom she met two years earlier in London, to look after her. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell are perfectly believable as the odd couple, but I struggled throughout to feel much sympathy for Gloria – in fact, I didn’t like her. Everybody has a sob story and hers is neither more nor less unfortunate than a million others, but we are meant to care deeply because she is sad that the passage of time has caught up with her and she is no longer in the limelight and making movies with Humphrey Bogart. Why Peter fell for her is not clear, for Gloria is voraciously needy and self-centred – to the point that she would quite happily let Peter’s parents cancel a trip to Australia for a family reunion so that they can fuss over her in one of their upstairs bedrooms. Director Peter McGuigan tells the story of Gloria and Peter’s brief romance with subtlety and more affection than I could muster, smoothly shifting in time and location – working-class Liverpool, California, New York – as Peter’s memory transports him to special moments in their relationship. As a film to savour for the acting, this is basically a two-hander that succeeds because of its fantastic leads and fine support cast, including a thankfully restrained Julie Walters. My companion was moved to tears, but my reaction was ‘meh’.

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