As a fading diva in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Annette Bening reminds the reviewer of why he fell in love with film in the first place. By Christos Tsiolkas.

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

A little while ago I was with three friends and we were discussing sex. After listening to me rant against the puritanism that I perceived was infecting contemporary queer and feminist politics, one of my friends turned to me and said, “All right. calm down, Samantha Jones.” Her droll intervention made me laugh. But our two friends were staring at us in bewilderment. They are two heterosexual men, au fait with all elements of contemporary popular culture; they can discuss eloquently and for hours the history of DC and Marvel adaptations, the strengths and weaknesses of John Oliver compared with Jon Stewart, why Hamilton is the best contemporary musical theatre. But my friend’s aside drew a blank. “She’s the sex-positive one on Sex and the City,” I explained. “The one played by Kim Cattrall.” “Got you,” one of them replied. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full episode.”

I’m going to make a huge generalisation, but I suspect that if it has to be explained to you who Samantha Jones is, you’re not going to enjoy Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool as much as I did. The film, directed by Paul McGuigan and starring Annette Bening as Hollywood great Gloria Grahame, is a work that might easily be dismissed by that numbingly reductive phrase, “a women’s film”. Three generations now of feminist film scholars and critics have exposed the sexism and inattention of such a term and of how a largely hostile male gaze had for a long time made film critics blind to the subversive potential of classical Hollywood films that focused on female romantic and sexual relationships. Films such as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) not only made a woman’s agency and desire central to the narrative, but offered a damning and incisive critique of materialism and capitalist exploitation. The exhilarating women-centred power of such movies was first celebrated by non-American film critics associated with the French nouvelle vague, a critical turning of the tide that spilt over into Anglophonic film criticism, and then was further buttressed by the rise of second-wave feminism. But it has been unapologetically queer or queer-friendly film directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, Wong Kar-wai and François Ozon who have mined that rich dissident vein of melodrama for their work. Fassbinder reinterpreted All That Heaven Allows in his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Todd Haynes responded to both works in his 2002 Far From Heaven. Their work is part of a call and response, where queer male sexuality, influenced by both feminism and femininity, undermines the genre conventions of classical cinema. These filmmakers understand how the melodrama offers a unique perspective through which to explore fissures of gender, race, class and identity. Of course, we need all these new action films that place a female protagonist at the centre of their traditional heroic narratives, but the work of such queer directors has been central in insisting that women as women, and the domestic as domestic, is just as important as having a sassy young heroine blow up aliens or stormtroopers in space.

There’s nothing in McGuigan’s previous work as a director that suggests the dexterity and sophistication he shows in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. In this he is, undoubtedly, assisted by an excellent script from Matt Greenhalgh. Based on the eponymous memoir by Peter Turner, the film traces the last weeks in the life of Grahame, who after collapsing in Liverpool during a production of The Glass Menagerie is taken up by Turner’s working-class family. Turner, played by Jamie Bell, had previously met Grahame in London, where the young actor had begun an affair with the much older, faded Hollywood star.

The film flashes back and forth between the trajectory of Grahame and Turner’s initial affair and their final time together in Britain. The narrative itself is straightforward but the structure that moves us between past and present, between Peter’s and Gloria’s memories, undermines some of our complacency as viewers. The long history of celebrity culture has us ready to assume a selfishness and egotism in Grahame’s relationship with the younger man, and reluctance on the part of the actor to relinquish the stardom of her younger years. Those elements of narcissism and vanity are certainly there in the film’s conception of Grahame, and in Bening’s exquisite playing of her, but the writer, director and performer make us comprehend how her moments of arrogance and emotional excess are rooted in the difficulties an ageing and sexually confident woman has in continuing her career in an industry dependent on youth and fresh talent. This nuanced sensitivity is there right from the opening scene where, seated before her make-up mirror, we witness the nightly ritual Grahame has to undergo in order to make herself the glamorous star that will command the stage. This is a film that knows the work that goes into the actor’s craft. Acting isn’t just a magical turning on of charisma but a craft demanding stamina and discipline.

The flashback sequences have a classical and studied elegance, the lighting and composition suggesting the studio-bound sets of classical Hollywood. The work here by cinematographer Ula Pontikos is understated but evocative and the stylised colours are absolutely right for the melodramatic twists and turns of the plot. That understatement is also part of McGuigan’s direction, with the mise en scène never drawing attention away from the film’s main focus, the performances of Bening and Bell. A viewer can sense Bening’s enjoyment of the role, in being able to inhabit a character for whom she certainly must feel some affinity. She persuades as Grahame but her performance never comes across as mimicry, as mere impersonation. The moments of rage that flare up in her performance, particularly when her right as a female actor to pursue certain roles is questioned or when she is attacked for her sexual history, have an urgency that rings true for Gloria Grahame. We are in no doubt that Bening is drawing on her own experiences for this anger, that she knows these prejudices and slights. It’s one of those great performances, where the character and performer seem inexorably linked.

As Peter, Bell has a less showy role, but this young actor has a remarkable presence, an astonishing ability to convey masculinity and sexual heat without it ever becoming cartoonish. Lars von Trier used this potency to great effect in Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, where Bell’s sexual aggression was frightening. I thought after that movie that I wanted to see Bell take on more dangerous roles, that I wanted to see more of that startling ferocity. But Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool reminded me of his range as an actor. In watching the film I recalled the charming young boy of Billy Elliot. Bell’s unselfish and supportive playing next to Bening suits the tenderness, awe and trepidation with which Peter experiences his affair with Grahame. He’s a working-class lad from Liverpool and he can’t believe this captivating woman could fall for him. In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Bening and Bell dance to A Taste of Honey’s disco hit “Boogie Oogie Oogie”, and what begins at first as hilarious and awful white-people-dancing slowly transforms into something sexy and sinuous. The audience experience the characters falling for each other in this moment.

The story has clearly animated McGuigan as a director but he doesn’t have the talent or the audacity to make the film truly euphoric. His ham-fistedness is most glaring in the Liverpool scenes, where the drabness and confinement of the interiors suggest the worst of working-class kitsch, an aesthetic that a present generation of British television comedy, from Shameless to Little Britain, has skewered and rendered ridiculous. Thankfully, Greenhalgh’s screenplay and the performers come to his rescue. There’s real wit in the script, and none of the condescension that mars the direction of these sequences. Greenhalgh worked on the original television series of Queer as Folk and wrote the scripts for the biopics of John Lennon in Nowhere Boy and Ian Curtis in Control. He knows the world of northern England, and he has a real sympathy and love for these characters. And although Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham and Stephen Graham, who play Peter’s parents and brother, are made-up terribly and unflatteringly, as if to suggest some ancien régime notion of the ugliness of the great unwashed, the performers have a naturalness and self-deprecating stoicism that persuades. McGuigan does what is necessary for such a film as this to work: he puts the performers first.

Gloria Grahame might seem a peculiar choice to be the focus of a film that is so unapologetic in its adoration of the female movie star. At the height of her Hollywood career, Grahame was most famous for a world-weary working-class jadedness. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, one of those sublime Hollywood films that inaugurated the pleasures of the soap opera, but her greatest performance is in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, playing opposite Humphrey Bogart. This astonishing film still strikes a contemporary viewer as daring in its adult treatment of heterosexual romance. The association with Nicholas Ray is pivotal to the Grahame we see in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Grahame and Ray were married for a brief period and, after divorcing him, Grahame eventually married his son, her stepson. It’s this biographical element that led to ostracism of the real Gloria Grahame and marked her as a sexual outsider, as did her choosing younger men as lovers. As current-day scandals and media histrionics suggest, such choices probably still would condemn her as a sexual rebel.

This element of being a sexual outsider remains covert in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. It’s not that it is denied or glossed over, but it is never central. A director such as Todd Haynes might have chosen to anchor the melodrama on such politics, but McGuigan’s interest is more formally conservative. He wants to honour Grahame and he wants to make a film that works as melodrama, a love story and a swooning celebration of the diva. In that he has succeeded. Of course, that might mean that this film is most pleasurable for us who are of an age to remember what it was to fall in love with those shimmering spectres on the silver screen. Younger audiences, queer or not, might very well be nonplussed, like the young Peter Turner, who had no idea who Grahame was when he first met her. The diva is no longer to be found on the cinema screen. She is now the Beyoncé of Lemonade or the Born This Way militant of Lady Gaga. But if you do recall that time when Hollywood films clandestinely declared your secrets, when they spoke directly to you by what they deliberately left unsaid, then I recommend Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. My inner Samantha Jones wishes it were bolder, more caustic and more questioning. But Bening and Bell are startlingly good in this film. Watching their romance unfold on screen reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.


Arts Diary

INSTALLATION Parade of Light

North Terrace, Adelaide, until March 18

CULTURE Lunar New Year Festival

Parliament House Lawns, Hobart, February 18

CINEMA Melbourne Women in Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Melbourne, February 22-25

CLASSICAL Thomas Tallis’ England

City Recital Hall, Sydney, February 21-March 3

Melbourne Recital Centre, February 24-25

THEATRE Single Asian Female

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until March 25

PHOTOGRAPHY Gerwyn Davies | Fur

Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, until March 24

QUEER Koori Gras

Carriageworks, Sydney, February 19-24

OPERA Carmen

Sydney Opera House, until March 23

THEATRE This is Eden

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until February 25

Last chance

VISUAL ART Janet Laurence: The Matter of Masters

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Liverpool kisses".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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