Friday 17 November 2017

Sic transit Gloria: "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"

The campaign to get Annette Bening the awards recognition she almost certainly deserves continues. Those miffed by the Academy's collective decision to overlook Bening's sterling work on 20th Century Women should be heartened by her return in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool: produced by Bond heavyweights Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, it hands its star the plum role of a Hollywood great, and even climaxes with newsreel footage of its subject accepting an Oscar, by way of an extra nudge. If Bening doesn't get at least a nomination for this one, we can safely accuse the electorate of not watching their screeners all the way through. The subject is Gloria Grahame, erstwhile bombshell of It's a Wonderful Life and The Bad and the Beautiful, but caught here in the very twilight of her celebrity - her Norma Desmond period, if you will - touring British repertory theatres as the 1970s gave way to the Eighties. This GG is, however, still capable of turning heads, not least that of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a jobbing actor and lad-about-Liverpool, whose memoir serves as the basis for Matt Greenhalgh's script. This pair first met in 1979 around Notting Hill, where the vivacious Grahame initiated the May-December romance; we join them in 1981, however, with a newly needy, pill-popping Gloria exiled to the provinces and plagued by unspecified medical complaints. This old broad has, visibly, reverted to a near-childlike state: one of the first things she asks her lover to do is to burp her.

The set-up recalls 2011's My Week with Marilyn - a relationship between a fragile movie icon and a civilian who falls under her spell - yet the film's timeshifts, pointing up the sand hurrying through the hourglass, lend Greenhalgh's script greater poignancy and texture, and shifting the action north stocks the frame with a different class of character actor: these people have chins, for one. Around the two leads, we get cherishable work from Julie Walters as Peter's mother - absolutely of this world (Walters would have herself been serving an apprenticeship at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre at this exact historical moment), and nailing one intrinsically mumsy move in fretting about putting an electric blanket on when Gloria shows up on the Turners' doorstep - and from Stephen Graham as Peter's older brother Joe, a tracksuited scally who has no time whatsoever for thespian frivolity: his hair is very Terry McDermott, and not coincidentally the funniest thing I've seen on screen for some while. For much of its duration, the period detail - the boys playing football in terraced streets, the graffiti, the rain - is just so; at the (London) press screening I attended, the notion one might purchase beer at 90p a pint elicited hearty if vaguely rueful chuckles. Only when the film follows Gloria back across the Atlantic do matters start to feel overstretched. Its America, evidently filmed none too far from Chester, is all rear projection and spaces too small and cramped to convince, although even here we alight upon notable acting, like a Malibu homecoming dinner that concludes abruptly, with Gloria's dotty mom (Vanessa Redgrave) urging Pete not to marry her daughter.

Our emotions, however, are carried by the two leads. Bell - in both his most prominent and strongest showing for several years - gives Peter a hint of edge, a certain steel around the eyes, which ensures this story isn't the romanticised copout the Marilyn movie became: no coy skinnydipping here, none of Eddie Redmayne's blushing. Peter calls Gloria "a crazy old fucking lady" in frustration at one point, and she reacts to that "old" as if he'd just punched her on the nose. It makes it doubly affecting when the young swain sincerely falls for this fallen star; and again as he attempts to prolong their affair in the face of her illness. If his co-star's performance doesn't quite match her work in 20th Century Women, Bening nevertheless brings all her considerable intelligence to bear on material that might easily have retreated into TV movie territory, showing us the difficult, sensitive woman behind the marquee name, attempting to will herself better, fitter, younger - as if moviestars were indestructible, and beyond such trivial mortal concerns as cancer. (The film's kitchen-sink setting offers its own rebuke to that belief.) There's nothing flashy about journeyman Paul McGuigan's direction: as John Crowley did in the not incomparable Brooklyn, he hands his excellent cast a fine script, and tries wherever possible to stay out of their way. Yet there are equally scenes here where his camera appears genuinely fascinated to be watching Bening do what she does: he cannot pull or cut away. All actresses should have an ally like this: the biggest gift Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool gives us is allowing us to see why and how Peter Turner fell for this woman - and why it might be an idea to reward Bening before, heaven forbid, it gets too late for her, too.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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