From “The Grifters” (1990) through “American Beauty” (1999) through “Being Julia” (2004) through “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), Bening has been one of the most versatile and interesting actresses of her generation, and she gives one of her most memorable and moving performances playing an actress in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”
In a piece of work that grows more layered and more empathetic as we get deeper into the story, Bening brings just the right touches of pathos, narcissism, Hollywood glamour and genuine heart to the role of Gloria Grahame, an Academy Award-winning screen star of the 1940s and 1950s (she won best supporting actress for 1952’s “The Bad and the Beautiful”), living out her final days in Liverpool in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Although only in her late 50s, Grahame was well past her glory days and was living a quiet life in a slightly run-down row house as she took roles in mid-size London stage productions, but she retained her star power, her ability to transform into a character and her command of any room she entered.
Directed with a lovely style by Paul McGuigan, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is based on the memoir from Peter Turner, a younger actor (played by Jamie Bell) who meets his neighbor Gloria when she asks him to help her with some “Saturday Night Fever” dance moves and he becomes friends with her.
The friendship quickly ignites into a passionate romance, and the relationship grows deeper and more complex with time – especially after Peter learns the gravity of Gloria’s medical condition.
It’s cancer, once in remission but now back with a vengeance. Gloria refuses to seek conventional medical treatment, and Peter becomes her caretaker, 24/7.
In a series of cleverly framed flashbacks (Peter opens a door in the present day, and suddenly we’re in Los Angeles or New York City), we see the roller-coaster nature of the romance.
There are glorious moments in Hollywood, when Peter sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time, and Gloria explains why she loves living in a trailer home on the beach instead of in the mansion she once occupied. Things grow dark in New York City, when it appears Gloria has simply tired of Peter and she treats him like a houseguest who has worn out his welcome, but then we see the same scenes from literally a different point of view, and we understand why Gloria was acting in such a manner.
Director McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh paint the film in unapologetically sentimental tones, especially in the scenes involving Peter’s lovely, wisecracking, tough-on-the-outside-but-warm-on-the-inside parents, expertly played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham.
Jamie Bell brings an almost threatening physicality to some of his screen work, and when we first see him as Peter, strutting down the dark streets of Liverpool as if spoiling for a fight, it appears he’ll be going in that direction again. But a moment later, Peter’s brother is giving him a hard time for still wearing the eyeliner from an acting gig, and Peter sheepishly washes his face in the kitchen sink, and we’re instantly intrigued by the character and the performance.
Bening is magnificent. At times, Gloria falls into a breathy, almost Marilyn Monroe-like accent – flirty and calculating. Gloria can be self-absorbed, demanding and maddeningly vain, but as portrayed by Bening, she’s a true artist who loves what she does, a mother who loves her children despite all her flaws, and perhaps most important of all, someone who doesn’t need to act or fake it for one second when she falls in love.