Gloria Grahame might be the most famous actress you've never heard of. In fact, she might have been lost forever to most modern audiences if not for Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, the new biographical romantic drama that illuminates her later life.
Grahame had a memorable supporting role in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, but her own life was far from wonderful. Though she saw success in the late 1940s and '50s – winning an Oscar for 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful – she soon faded from the screen as the film industry switched from romantic naturalism to realism and Grahame morphed from spunky starlet to aging actress. To compensate, Grahame indulged in young lovers and misplaced vanity while ignoring serious health issues.
Fast forward to 1980s Liverpool. Having become too ill to continue a revival of her English theatrical career, she turns to her friend Peter Turner, a 28-year-old aspiring Liverpudlian actor.
Though their relationship is shrouded in mystery in the film's early going, it soon becomes clear what the two mean to each other. Turner may not yet be in the second act of his own life, but he's clearly got a huge part to play in the final scenes of Grahame's.
This film based on Turner's memoir is directed by Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) and written by Matt Greenhalgh. Though the story is intriguing, it's also surprisingly straightforward and reliant on flashbacks to flesh out its characters, create context and provide a level of structural complexity. That structure is only partially successful, and we're sometimes left wondering exactly what Turner initially saw in Grahame and why Turner's parents are so supportive of both him and Grahame. Yes, Grahame exudes sexiness, making us (and presumably Turner) forget the almost 30-year age difference. (Marilyn Monroe meets Mrs. Robinson.) In addition, Turner's parents' generation would have remembered and admired Grahame's screen career, but that sometimes doesn't seem enough to explain the improbable relationships between the characters.
The job of selling an undercooked screenplay falls – as it often does in films such as this – to performance, pacing and overall directorial sensibility. And the job is well done, if not with flourish then with competence. As Turner, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) is infinitely watchable, if not wholly relatable. And in supporting roles, Kenneth Cranham (Turner's dad) and Vanessa Redgrave (Grahame's mom) bring subtlety and compassion to their odd roles, though the latter's appearance is disappointingly brief considering she might be the greatest living actress not named Meryl Streep.
But it's Annette Bening who powers the film, holds our interest and makes us care about a woman heretofore mostly unknown to us. Grahame calls the London play in which she's performing a mix of "sex, sin [and] salvation," and Bening's characterization of Grahame is also just that: a bit dangerous and a bit desperate, but, in the end, more meaningful than we had anticipated. Bening's performance in 20th Century Women was overrated and her turn in Rules Don't Apply underrated; let's hope this one gets the respect it deserves.