In some ways, Gloria Grahame was the Norma Desmond of her time. Desmond, the fictional diva in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” was a silent screen star who faded after the advent of movie sound.
Grahame was a smoldering presence in 1940s and 1950s film noir, including “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “The Big Heat,” her looks tailor-made for those films’ lustrous black and white images. But when Technicolor arrived, her career and personal life cratered. Even though she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1952 for “The Bad and the Beautiful,” modern audiences have now largely forgotten about her. If she’s remembered at all, it’s probably for playing Violet, Bedford Falls’ favorite bad girl, in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The entirety of Grahame’s rise and fall might make for a fascinating biopic, but “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” focuses on her last couple years, from 1979 to 1981. That’s partly by necessity, as the film is adapted from Paul Turner’s memoir of the same name, recounting his brief affair with Grahame at the end of her life. But it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity, especially when what’s on screen is so listless and overdressed, relying on visual and narrative tricks more than honest emotion.
When the film opens, it’s 1981, and Grahame (Annette Bening) is eking out an existence as a stage actress in England. After she collapses in her dressing room before a performance, she asks to be taken to Liverpool to convalesce with Paul (Jamie Bell) and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham). As Paul cares for her, his memory slips back to the brief, intense romance they had had a couple of years earlier.
Director Paul McGuigan (“Victor Frankenstein”) uses some inventive but distracting techniques to slide between past and present. At one point, in one unbroken shot, Paul walks out of a room in 1979 and directly back into 1981. He also makes heavy use of rear projected scenery, much like those used in old movies. At first this seems like an ungainly cost-cutting measure, but in the final shot becomes a rather poetic evocation of how the movies literally infuse these people’s lives.
But Matt Greenhalgh’s by-the-numbers script doesn’t provide much in the way of psychological complexity or poignancy in that central relationship. Bell doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than play Paul as the devoted boyfriend, hanging on for dear life to Gloria’s many changes in mood. Those emotional shifts give Bening a lot to do. One minute she’s flirty and coquettish, the other sad and despairing. It’s as if we’re watching the movie star mask go on and off before our eyes.
The screenplay makes Gloria’s struggle with her faded glory too literal. In one scene, she flies into a rage because Paul suggests she might be too old to play Juliet. I know she’s deluded, but would even the most deluded actress in her 50s really think she could convincingly play a teenager?
The second half of the film focuses more on their breakup, including a needlessly extended he-said, she-said sequence that contrasts his version of their last day together with hers. Like so much of “Film Stars,” it’s just unnecessary, an extra layer of powder makeup. Ditto to the on-the-nose musical cues, such as playing “California Dreamin’” when the couple takes a trip to Hollywood.
Bening usually plays smart, centered women in films like “20th Century Women," so it is intriguing to see her play someone as desperate and insecure as Grahame. But the narrative clutter of the film gets in her way. You can’t help but feel that the movies have shortchanged Grahame once again.