Despite an assured and confident lead performance from Annette Bening, this treacly biopic of Gloria Grahame’s final days offers little true insight.
With awards season dying down, it’s time for the also-rans. January and February are known as ‘dump months,’ the time of the year where studios dump the movies they don’t have much faith in. These include, sadly, the films initially made with Oscar gold in mind, but whose ambitions were tampered by everything from industry heat to test screenings. This spot is reserved for films like The Founder or Cake, fine enough films on their own but clearly meant to grant some awards heat to their central performer. Sadly, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool clearly belongs in this category, a handsome but anemic sob story about the cruelty and vanity of Hollywood that isn’t nearly as interesting as its central performance.
Adapted from the memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool follows the final days of Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), an middle-aged starlet with a predilection for vanity and an interest in younger men. Facing terminal cancer while performing a stage show in Liverpool, she calls up Turner (Jamie Bell), a Liverpudlian actor and old flame, and stays with him and his family (Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham) in their home in Liverpool. As Gloria’s health wanes, she reconnects with Turner, while flashbacks tell the story of their introduction, relationship and subsequent breakup in the 1970s.
While director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock) attempts some admirable stylistic touches – the transitions between flashback and present day are inventive, to say the least – there’s not much to write home about with Film Stars. Gloria Grahame’s life and career is an inherently interesting thing; after all, she won Best Supporting Actor for The Bad and the Beautiful in 1953, and had a vibrant screen career throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age. One can only imagine the kinds of pressures Old Hollywood placed on its actresses to remain relevant, to say nothing of today. Unfortunately, these details hide in the background, the audience only really seeing Gloria deep in middle-age. Instead, the film chooses Pete as the real protagonist (given that it’s the real Pete’s book they’re adapting), which just isn’t as interesting as an emphasis on the film star of the title.
That said, Annette Bening is fantastic as usual, giving an assured, dynamic performance that’s understated without devolving into impersonation. There’s a breathier, lighter tone to Bening’s voice that more closely matches Grahame’s, giving her a Marilyn Monroe-like fragility. She’s someone who masks deep insecurities though swaggering seduction, and for the sections of the film that feature Gloria, her magnetism is enough to get through the film’s overall dullness. Say what you will about the film around her, but Bening can hardly be faulted for the rest of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool‘s greater flaws.
First and foremost among these is Film Stars’ framing device – Gloria Grahame’s hot-rodding Hollywood life, and the entrance of a wide-eyed twink into that dynamic as she clings to youth and status, might have worked as a sustained, chronological narrative. However, the time spent in Pete’s home just feels like a waste of time, as we check our watches waiting for them to go back to Sunny California. It might have worked better as a comprehensive final act rather than something we must persistently cut back and forth from. One particular reveal of events from Pete’s, then Gloria’s perspectives, respectively, feels a lot less clever than the filmmakers think it is.
Apart from that, there’s really not much to write home about. The typical Hollywood critiques abound about the nature of celebrity and the pressures of working, but it’s stuff we’ve all seen before, and handled with greater directness and flourish than McGuigan and crew can offer. Bell, Walters and the rest of the supporting cast do their best to elevate the material, but the whole affair sinks under the weight of its own irrelevance. At this point, Film Stars cannot tell us anything more than we already know about the nature of the Hollywood star system, and sidles us with a love story that only its star and subject care about. In the end, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool deserves little more than a respectful nod in Annette Bening’s direction.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens Friday, January 12th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago.