What an astounding actress Annette Bening is. And she’s at her very best in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool playing Gloria Grahame, a screen siren of the 1940s and 1950s. Here, however, we pick up with the actress during her last years, from 1979 to 1981, when she died of breast cancer at the age of 57. Instead of hitting all the familiar beats – fading bombshell desperately holding on to her past glory – Bening brings Graham to thrilling life as the complicated woman she was till the end.
Grahame made her mark playing bad girls in such film noir classics as The Big Heat, Human Desire, Crossfire and In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart; she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful. Rattled by scandal – she married her stepson Anthony Ray, who was 13 when their relationship began – the four-times divorced mother of four fled to England. It was there, while performing on stage in the late Seventies that Grahame met Peter Turner, a younger actor who saw her through her final days after the former starlet refused treatment for cancer.
It's her relationship with Turner, played by the terrific Jamie Bell, that constitutes the core of the film, based on Turner's 1986 memoir about his time with the actress in the Liverpool row house of his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham). The cancer aspect of the story follows a traditional trajectory, which Scottish director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh seem unable to refresh. It’s the earlier section of the film that allows the performers to shine. Bening sees Grahame in her mid-Fifties as still possessed of talent, charm and kittenish sex appeal, enough to entice the three-decades-younger Turner; their scenes together have sexual chemistry to burn, especially when they disco dance to "Boogie Oogie Oogie." (Bening mixes it up on the dance floor with the big-screen Billy Elliot himself!)
McGuigan meshes past and present by having Turner in Liverpool one minute and then striding seconds later into his lady friend's Manhattan apartment or her L.A. trailer by the ocean – which is where he meets her British mother (a superb Vanessa Redgrave) and sharp-tongued sister (Frances Barber). Grahame doesn't talk much about her Hollywood days, except to mention that Bogart taught the invaluable lesson of letting the camera come to her. (Bening mastered that art long ago, having received her first Oscar nomination for 1990's The Grifters – playing a man-trap role that would have suited Grahame to a tee.)
Still, the film by its very nature bogs down in moody solemnity once this former film-noir force of nature is reduced to being little more than a patient in the Turners' Liverpool household. Through it all, Bening demonstrates again why she's one of the best actresses in the business, digging deep to find the woman behind the sex symbol and refusing to settle for the superficial – there's no suggestion of Grahame's sexy pout, the result of surgery that gave her the so called "novocaine lip." During the end credits, we see a clip of the real Grahame accepting her Oscar, grabbing hold of the statuette without breaking her stride and, in one of the shortest acceptance speeches ever, offering only a hasty "thank you." The movie would be little more than an extended version of that moment if it weren't for the actress playing her on screen. It's a touching tribute to both their talents.