Annette Bening Brings Forgotten Hollywood Star to Life in ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell are an unlikely pair in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” a drama about the real-life romance between two unconventional people. Bening plays Gloria Grahame, an Oscar-winning actress who was almost as famous for her turbulent personal life as she was for her work. When the film begins in 1981, she is 57 and in the twilight of her career, performing in plays in northern England. Her ill health forces her to pull out of her latest production, and she soon finds herself back in touch with the last of her many lovers, the much-younger Peter Turner (Bell), a Liverpool-based actor. Stricken with what is revealed to be terminal cancer, Gloria spends much of her last days being cared for by Peter and his family, including his warm and caring mother, Bella (Julie Walters) in their modest home. These flashbacks are interwoven with scenes of a more vibrant and healthy Gloria just two years earlier when she fell in love with Peter, revealing a tender romance thwarted by misunderstandings, pride and unfortunate circumstances.

It is at a Liverpool boarding house that Peter first in comes in contact with Gloria, who, despite being nearly 30 his senior, comes across as youthful as any lady his own age, with her breathy speaking voice, delicateness, and youthful energy and sometimes naive way of looking at the world, and their courtship, which includes outing to the movies and local pubs, is rather conventional, all things considering. This being the heyday of disco, a shared love of dancing helps cement their bond, but acting is the real passion of both of them. Peter goes home with Gloria to California, and there we begin to understand her deeper by meeting her family, her flighty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her bitter sister (Frances Barber), the latter who has no qualms about digging up old skeletons, including Gloria’s past marriage with her former stepson. It is in New York where the romance dies, a sequence which Paul McGuigan wisely chose to show first from Peter’s POV, making it all the more heartbreaking when we get to Gloria’s POV and learn the tragic reason why their love becomes doomed.

Based on the real Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a fitting tribute to a star who has been all but forgotten by Hollywood (Bell himself admitted at a Q and A following the film’s AFI Film Festival premiere that he hadn’t heard of Grahame before he read the script). Despite the setbacks in her life, Bening portrays her as having a fighting spirit that remained with her until she took her very last breath. The role allows the veteran actress, who, shockingly, has never won an Oscar, despite multiple nominations, to display a side of herself that we haven’t seen before, at least in recent years when she has been primarily confined to wife and mother roles. As for Bell, he holds his own against his illustrious co-star, playing Peter as someone who at first glance seems like a rather basic guy, but upon further examination is revealed to have more in common with his adventurous girlfriend than one would think – at one point they both confess to each other their past same-sex relationships. Bell’s performance is both subtle and touching as he keeps the film from veering into melodrama territory.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” opens Dec. 29 in Los Angeles and New York, expanding to select theaters throughout the the U.S. Jan. 12, Jan. 19, Jan. 26, Feb. 2, Feb. 9 and Feb. 16.