“What ever happened to Gloria Grahame?” classic movie buffs might well have asked in 1981, the year the blonde, Betty Boop-voiced Oscar winner died of cancer. The same question certainly applies to the lovingly crafted but tough-going biopic “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” in which the one-time bombshell — a character Annette Bening dons like a pair of kidskin opera gloves — disappears 40 minutes in, replaced by a slow-motion and rather standard-issue terminal illness victim, daintily coughing her way to her death bed for the rest of the movie.
This elegant yet instantly forgettable tribute derives from hails from Peter Turner’s affectionate memoir of the same name, sentimentally adapted by writer-director Paul McGuigan. Peter, who is played by “Billy Elliot” star Jamie Bell, all growed up, was 28 at the time, but has always treasured his May-December tryst with “Glo” (as only he’s allowed to call her): Their love affair was steamy while it lasted, and downright poignant during its encore, when Grahame called up her former beau and asked to spend her final days with him at his mum’s row house in Liverpool (a house where the wallpaper is very nearly a character unto itself, and has a nasty habit of upstaging its occupants).
Adopting Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend” as a kind of musical leitmotif amid composer J. Ralph’s already elegiac score, “Film Stars” jumps around between 1979 and 1981. Working closely together, editor Nick Emerson and DP Urszula Pontikos slip between flashbacks and “the present” (two years later) via long hallways, open doors and an extravagant device by which the free-floating camera careens off to study vast expanses of flowered wallpaper before circling back to find the characters rearranged within the room at a different point in their lives.
Over-production-designed as the film is, Bening and Bell manage to hold their own within it. The chemistry is palpable between their characters, even when it has to compete with Eve Stewart’s needlessly garish sets, such as Grahame’s flat, decorated by someone with a runaway peacock fetish — and all of which seem to contradict the intimacy of Turner’s memoir. The costumes, while lovely, are similarly attention-hogging. (Is there any chance that Peter’s father, a self-professed Gloria Grahame devotee, would wear fluorescent-orange plaid and flower-print ties?). For some reason, only Bell is permitted to wear solid colors amid so many wild patterns.
The first couple reels are golden, as the lovingly lit, handsomely photographed romance explores how it must feel for a red-blooded movie buff to make it with a silver-screen sex symbol. That’s the fantasy all these movies are selling, after all, and yet, we so seldom see it consummated that McGuigan is truly giving us a gift here in the first part of the movie, humanizing a figure whom most have only objectified.
Bening plays that dynamic beautifully, matching Grahame’s mannerisms — the insouciantly seductive pout (“The Bad and the Beautiful”), the way applying lipstick could be as sexy as taking off her stockings (“The Big Heat”) — even when her only audience is this young wannabe actor from a working-class English town. Grahame didn’t walk so much as strut (stopping traffic without so much as trying in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), and so she does in private as well, shoulders back, head held high.
Bening earned her first Oscar nomination for playing a Gloria Grahame type in “The Grifters” — “a tart,” in the words of Peter’s parents (represented here by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham in a pair of relatively phony performances). A quarter-century later, she’s still got it, but Bening finds a dimension that was either missing or never called for before — a newfound vulnerability. When Grahame comes on to Peter, it doesn’t feel as effortless as it did for the characters she played. This time around, she has something to prove, though the film acknowledges that dynamic in a way that’s far more nuanced than Ryan Murphy’s similarly age-sensitive, yet deliberately campy FX series “Feud.” In moments when it shouldn’t matter, the 55-year-old actress asks her young lover, “Tell me how I look” — because that’s still what matters most to her.
Except, Turner saw something more in his “Glo,” and though the movie fails to convey precisely what that was, we believe it. (The book does a better job, including anecdotes in which we glimpse the real Grahame, as when she says, “I can’t stand the sight of Ronnie Reagan. … I’d like to stick my Oscar up his arse!”) Still, the fading star lets down her guard for Peter, bringing him back to California, where they meet her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and sister (Frances Barber) in a terrific scene that achieves what the entire movie ought to have done: It leaves us wanting more.
But Grahame overstays her welcome, and her waning days seem to stretch on forever — which is the worst possible impression we could get from a movie that touches on the terrible irony, too seldom considered, of how actors whom society collectively adores often spend their final days terribly alone. And yet, McGuigan tries to strong-arm a reaction from us, letting genuine emotion devolve into the most manipulative kind of bathos.
Early on, Grahame expresses her desire to play Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and so Peter — who’s presented as the caring, if tragically oblivious perfect boy toy every woman deserves — indulges that dream as a kind of dying wish. Though sniffles could be heard from every corner of the Telluride film festival screening where this drawn-out weepie premiered, you may well find yourself wishing the old gal would just go on and die in Liverpool already.