Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (15)

Paul McGuigan

AN ordinary person and a movie star fall in love. It’s the stuff of film fantasy, the best-known version of which is the romance between Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. But a new film reminds us that such things do occasionally happen in real life, where the dynamic can be no less unusual and problematic – and no less romantic.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on the memoir by Peter Turner, and concerns his love affair with the Oscar-winning, one-time screen siren Gloria Grahame, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Because it is a true story, and one that ends in tragedy, it doesn’t conform to the usual rom-com template for fictional fare; in fact, its setting, characters and bitter-sweet love story make it entirely distinctive.

In 1979, Turner (Jamie Bell) is a wannabe actor in his 20s, who has moved from his home in Liverpool to London in the hope of kick-starting his career. Grahame (Annette Bening) was once a huge Hollywood star, notably appearing in a number of classic crime movies, but is now in career decline, treading the boards in English rep. She is in her 50s.

The pair meet when staying in the same boarding house in, ironically, Notting Hill. “She was a big name in black and white films. Not doing too well in colour,” quips their landlady when pointing out the new tenant to Turner. He’s never heard of Grahame, but is soon summoned into her room, to help her practise disco dancing.

This first, real encounter is electric. Bening, with bleached blond curls and a salmon pink top, is instantly flirtatious; Bell exudes youthful masculinity, the original Billy Elliot launching into some superb moves. Despite the age difference, the chemistry is palpable. And soon, they’re dating.

By this point, however, we have been forewarned that the heady romance doesn’t last. Two years later, in Liverpool, Peter will be back living with his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) and beginning to act on stage. He and Gloria are estranged, but when she calls, sick with cancer, he takes her home with the intention of caring for her. The film will flash back and forth between their romance and her decline, surrounded not by her own family, but his – not in a Hollywood mansion, but a little Liverpool terraced house.

The book has been adapted by Matt Greenhalgh, who with Control (about Ian Curtis of Joy Division) and Nowhere Boy (John Lennon) demonstrated an empathetic knack for dissecting artists’ private lives. His script wisely forgoes the reasons why Grahame’s career went off the boil, which included some eccentric choices in her private life, before Peter, which are alluded to in a horrible confrontation with the actress’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and sister.

Instead, Greenhalgh allows us to regard an actress still devoted to her craft, if undermined by a fragile ego, alongside a down-to-earth and sincere young man remarkably unfazed by her fame.

Director Paul McGuigan (Acid House, Gangster No 1) moves seamlessly between the different stages of the relationship, and has fun using some of the old Hollywood techniques, such as back projection, which were used in Grahame’s heyday.

But front and centre are the actors. Bening is heartbreaking, Bell a revelation, the pair making a passionate relationship that traversed age, wealth and fame wholly believable. A scene in which Peter gives the dying Gloria a chance to read Juliet opposite his Romeo, privately on stage, is quite beautiful; as he faces the prospect of losing her, there won’t be many dry eyes in the house.