This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Annette Bening, right, and Jamie Bell in a field from “Film Personalities Don’t Perish in Liverpool.”
Annette Bening offers Gloria Grahame a nobility hardly ever shown to faded Hollywood stars in “Film Stars Don’t Expire in Liverpool,” a tender if generic family portrait of older glamour.
Based on the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, Paul McGuigan’s film joins the dubious movie genre about close encounters with Hollywood royalty. In movies like “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) and “Me and Orson Welles” (2008) an outsider is unexpectedly thrust into a short-lived intimacy with a star. The self-aggrandized “me” of these titles guarantee us a home window into an unattainable, larger-than-life personality as though to say: No-one recognized (fill-in-the-blank) like me.
But while proximity to Monroe or Welles has vast cache, Grahame is less of a household name and the close-up provided by “Film Personalities Don’t Perish in Liverpool” is much taken off her heyday. Grahame was, simply, one of the great black-and-white stars: the “other” 1950s blonde bombshell with a tender, sweet tone. Grahame, a femme fatale of feline grace, could slip through a film, as the critic Judith Williamson had written, “like a drop of loose mercury.”
She slinked through traditional noirs like “In Lonely Place,” “Crossfire” and “The Big Heat,” played out the flirtatious young lady rescued by Jimmy Stewart in “It’s an excellent Life” and earned an Oscar for her performance as Dick Powell’s partner in the Hollywood story “The Bad and the stunning.” She was often the stressed tart or the lethal seductress, but Graham’s personal life turned her into a real-life pariah. Her 4th, initially secret marriage was to her previous stepson, the child of her third partner, the filmmaker Nicholas Ray. He was 13 when their relationship began.
None of this, though, is the main topic of “Film Personalities Don’t Perish in Liverpool.” Grahame is here now in her last years, in exile, acting in regional theatre while privately battling breast malignancy. It’s well into the film before Grahame’s troubled former is alluded to. We live instead created to a vivacious female still passionate for acting as well as for love, albeit just a little delusional about her get older. (She pines to experiment with Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company.) From doorway of her Liverpool apartment, she asks a neighbour, Turner (Jamie Bell) to boogie disco with her. Encouraged by “Saturday Nighttime Fever,” they groove to “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”
Turner, a wannabe professional himself, is drawn into her obit not because of her fame but because she’s still simply intoxicating. And, admittedly, there are few clues besides her lighter inscribed by Humphrey Bogart. What would an Oscar champion be doing in a Liverpool creation of “The Glass Menagerie”? Soon, they’re attached at the hip, and jetting to New York and Los Angeles.
With some ingenious transitions, McGuigan (“Lucky Amount Slevin) structures their love through snippets of storage area, looking again from Grahame’s last times in 1981, two years after achieving Turner. You can find colorful moments with Turner’s bewildered working class family, but “Film Stars Don’t Expire in Liverpool” never portions to greater than a minor, sideways view of Grahame, sorely missing context.
Whatever the defects of “Film Personalities Don’t Perish in Liverpool,” chemistry isn’t one of these. Bening and Bell lead to a May-December romance of often coming in contact with warmness. They’ve surely exaggerated the pair’s genuine relationship. (Turner composed that he considered his sexuality “fluid,” but Bell’s performance implies little of this.) Nearly two decades after debuting in “Billy Elliot,” Bell has matured into a potent, even brooding screen presence.
What the Grahame of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is missing at length, Bening makes up for in passion. Her performance is a kind of rebuke to the arc and tragic Norma Desmond view of maturing movie actresses. They deserve better, Bening seems to be suggesting. And this calendar year, it’s never been simpler to see precisely how right she is.
“Film Celebrities Don’t Pass away in Liverpool,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some intimate content and short nudity.” Running time: 106 minutes. Two . 5 stars out of four.