Happily offering a good time to James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” driving Humphrey Bogart to murderous distraction in “In a Lonely Place,” the sullenly sensual Hollywood legend Gloria Grahame lived a turbulent life (four marriages, one to her stepson by onetime husband Nicholas Ray) that ended in 1981, at age 57.
Her final, cancer-ridden years were spent in the company of a Liverpool actor, Peter Turner. They met in a London boarding house. At the time Grahame was playing Somerset Maugham’s hotsy-totsy sinner Sadie Thompson in “Rain” for a local theater troupe. Turner was working in a furniture shop, looking for acting jobs. They fell together, and ended up traveling to California, New York and Las Vegas. Grahame liked Turner’s working-class family, and when she took seriously ill, she spent a lot of time in the council house flat of her lover’s youth.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on Turner’s 1986 memoir, is worth seeing for the way Annette Bening handles the role of a Hollywood icon on the fade. With delicacy as well as fire, Bening doesn’t strive to re-create the physical or vocal specifics of Grahame, whom we see in film clips from “Naked Alibi” and glamour photos from throughout her younger years.
Rather, Bening creates her own version of events, working from the efficient, well-ordered script by Matt Greenhalgh. The movie, directed by Paul McGuigan, may be a bit tame and well-behaved for its subjects. But it’s a valentine, not a psychodrama.
Bening energizes each scene with a voice that floats and a look that singes. “Always played the tart,” one character puts it in the movie. “Big name in black and white films. Not doing so well in color, though.” At her best, Bening gives Grahame the pride of a true star, right alongside the jagged edges and insecurities of a woman who has been through the Hollywood mill. As Turner, Jamie Bell matches Bening stride for stride, creating a quiet characterization of a young man with a secret or two. (At one point Turner and Grahame acknowledge their bisexual pasts.)
The family scenes open up what is essentially a two-hander. Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham are seasoned delights as Turner’s parents. In the Southern California sequences, set in and around Grahame’s humble mobile home with the fabulous view of the Pacific, Vanessa Redgrave gets a juicy scene as Grahame’s British mother. As Grahame’s mean, gossipy sister, Frances Barber shares that scene, which introduces to Peter the dark family secret: Grahame’s long-ago marriage to her stepson, whom she allegedly slept with when he was 13.
The movie doesn’t take the sister’s side, or get into much beyond the May/December romance at hand. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is best enjoyed as an acting showcase and, in particular, an excellent actress’ take on a very different sort of excellent actress.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, some sexual content and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:45