Film stars never die; they simply fade away. Like moths to the flame, they become one with the light, always there to be called once more with a flip of the switch.
One of the silver screen’s most enchanting sirens, Gloria Grahame, is still with us. We need only slid our copy of The Big Heat or In a Lonely Place once more into the DVD player, and presto, the vixen with the pout lives between the flicker of shadow and light.
But in reality, Gloria Graham did die, in New York City on October 5, 1981, from breast cancer. She was 57. Her death and the events leading up to it form the basis of Peter Turner’s biographically inspired novel, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which has now been adapted into the movie of the same name with Annette Bening as the 54-year-old Grahame and Jamie Bell as the 26-year-old Turner.
Like an old movie trope, Film Stars starts with Grahame on her way down — the majority of her work comes as a stage actress in England — and Turner on his way up. The two meet in the middle and begin a three-year romance; from London to New York with a stopover in Los Angeles — filmed to look like a classic movie set — and back to Liverpool where Grahame spends her penultimate days in Turner’s flat.
Adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Paul McGuigan, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a beautiful film about a heartbreaking romance, one that never quite establishes the trust necessary for true love to blossom. McGuigan visualizes this magnificently through a series of scenes, first from Turner’s point and view and then from Grahame’s, establishing that there’s more than just an age gap standing in their way. If their love were a song, it would be “My Foolish Heart” from Oscar Peterson: soft and sweet with a dollop of melancholy.
This makes the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ complete lack of recognition for Film Stars even more frustrating, particularly in regards to Bening’s performance. Bening — who played the Gloria Grahame type to perfection early in her career with The Grifters — brings the perfect amount of pathos and performance to Grahame herself. This is an older Grahame, one who has no interest in letting go of the persona that made her famous. Watch the way Grahame looks at Turner in their first meeting. It is not of a 54-year-old woman trying to seduce a 26-year-old, it is the look of a woman who still thinks of herself as a 26-year-old vixen. What man could resist?
English critic Judith Williamson described Grahame’s performance in the 1954 film noir Human Desire as “unfathomable and ungraspable. She slips through the film like a drop of loose mercury. Neither we nor the other characters know whether to believe what she says.” The fact that Grahame could pull that off is why we’re still talking about her today. The fact that Bening pulls the same trick, inside a cinematic hall of mirrors, is why we’ll be talking about her for years to come.