Based on a true-life memoir by Peter Turner, written in 1986, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool tells the beautifully poignant story of how a young Scouse actor fell in love with Hollywood femme fatale Gloria Grahame.
He was in his 20s, she was 55 when they met in 1979. As put by the landlord in the Primrose Hill lodgings they shared: “She was a big name in black and white films – not doing so well in colour.” It’s a nice riff on the Norma Desmond lines from Sunset Boulevard about the pictures getting smaller but, as played by Annette Bening, Grahame’s allure still tingles and zings.
For a working-class kid from Liverpool, Turner can’t resist when this exotic, charismatic creature down the hall asks for a light (a classic femme fatale move), invites him in for cocktails and soon has him dancing to the new Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It’s a lovely little scene and, as Peter is played by Jamie Bell, we suddenly flash back to Billy Elliot, when he was dancing with Julie Walters – and, what do you know, Julie’s only in this too, playing his Mum back in Liverpool, fretting about putting the electric blanket on.
The film references are everywhere in this movie, because it’s partly about the movies and their ability to lie, to dazzle, to distort. Behind Gloria’s bravado and Bogie anecdotes, a sadness and brittle fear lurks. It’s one that Peter wants to banish yet it’s also what attracts him, this vulnerability. Despite an Oscar for The Bad and The Beautiful and roles in classics such as Oklahoma, It’s A Wonderful Life and The Big Heat, when we meet her Hollywood has thrown her out and she’s in England working on the stage, still pulling them in at the Palace Theatre (“The girl who can’t say No says Yes to Watford”).
And it’s this clash between the perceived glamour and the everyday that gives the film both its humour and its pathos. Turner’s and Grahame’s romance feels genuine, sweet and pure until real life intrudes, in the form of petty jealousies, snobberies and the desire to work.
Turner’s family bring a touching sensitivity to these themes – Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as Mum and Dad, Stephen Graham as the scally brother with the leather jacket and permed hair. It’s a great wallpaper movie, going to town on the faded decor of their Liverpool terraced house, all contrasted with Gloria’s sunlit California home by the sea… although even this is cleverly revealed to be a trailer home rather than a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Much of this is revealed in flashback. The screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh clearly knows how to hold his mysteries, just like a great screen actresses used to. As Gloria says: “Bogie gave me the best advice: ‘Keep it in the shadows, kid, let the camera come to you’.”
But the title does, of course, hint at tragedy and the film opens with Gloria collapsing in the Lancaster Hotel and requesting to be looked after by Peter and his unsuspecting family in the freezing rain of Liverpool. You couldn’t get less glamorous, but this craving for intimacy, family and warmth (even if it’s an electric blanket rather than the Malibu sun) is what makes the whole film such a delicate delight.
Bell is terrific here, full of still-boyish innocence but imbuing it with a cool confidence in his own strength and talent. His is an extremely likeable, heartfelt turn. In the more flamboyant role, Bening is reliably excellent, delivering the whip smart one-liners and flirtatious starriness that immediately slays Peter but really earning her smarts with the peeks behind that fallible grande dame facade – we’re all suckers for that stuff, even when it happens at the breakfast table over a bacon sarnie.