Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool Film Review
Rose-tinted glasses don’t disguise a plodding script.
For their first date, aging Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and her much younger partner, Peter (Jamie Bell) go to the movies to see Alien, the Ridley Scott classic. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s director, Paul McGuigan, shows the crowd’s reaction to that most infamous, blood-soaked chest-bursting scene. Everybody’s shrieking and cowering; Peter throws himself over Gloria like a child seeking refuge in his mother’s arms.
It’s a nice snapshot of an audience enthralled by a movie, experiencing an eventual cultural mainstay for the first time. Film Stars is one of those nostalgic movies about the movies, about Hollywood magic and legendary romances. Like in La La Land (2016), any element of self-aware cynicism is barely visible behind the rose-tinted glasses through which those movies look. But where Damian Chazelle’s musical was unafraid to break a few hearts, Film Stars’ loving approach is a little like that gross-out scene in Alien: it either works for you on a gut-level, or it doesn’t. You can sit there and decide the alien looks fake or the romance is contrived, or you can immerse yourself in movie magic and forgive the movie for its indulgences.
I had a tough time surrendering to the plot, an uncritical biopic resembling another movie out at the moment, the Colin Firth vehicle about a headstrong competitive sailor, The Mercy. Both movies gaze at their subjects with doe-eyes, though, while The Mercy I suspect was a product of not wanting to piss off the subject’s family by portraying him unflatteringly, Film Stars is based on a memoir by Peter Turner, who was madly in love with the Hollywood starlet. In Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay, it shows. Too much.
Thankfully, for all its light touches and kid-glove handling of the subject, the movie has a lot going for it. Annette Bening plays Gloria Grahame, who’s just moved into a crummy apartment outside London, right below Peter’s room. Bening is one of those artists you figure has been nose-deep in whatever script she’s given, picking apart the character on the page and reconstructing it into something more interesting, into a figure only she could play.
Flitting back and forth between 1979 and 1981, Los Angeles, New York and Liverpool, their romances is played out in two halves. In one, the couple are lovesick and galavanting across the US together, in the other, Gloria is sick in bed in Liverpool after collapsing before a play, looked after by Peter’s family. McGuigan and cinematographer Urszula Pontikos shoot these sections in heavily contrasting colours, with LA lit up by surreally bright skies and sandy beaches, while Liverpool is drab and claustrophobic. The move looks beautiful and does a good job distracting us from two stories hurtling towards inevitable conclusions: they’re going to break up in LA, and she’s going to die in Liverpool.
Not wanting to shift the focus from Gloria, Greenhalgh’s screenplay doesn’t give much to Bell as Peter. Like Bening, Bell always brings something to the roles that might not be there on the page: he was the bright spark in 2008’s tedious Jumper and he has a great deal of presence in Von Trier’s masterpiece Nymphomaniac (2013). He falls hard for Gloria, and we believe it. The seduction scene towards the beginning (easily the most captivating part of the movie) shows him coolly distanced and thinking he has this thing under control, while Gloria is slowly reeling him in for one of her infamous whirlwind romances.
McGuigan and co. are right to keep the focus on Gloria—she’s an interesting figure. During their marriage, her husband director Nicholas Ray caught her and his son in bed together. She eventually pulled a Woody Allen and married her stepson. This stuff is salacious and gossipy—it’s juicy and ripe for a screenplay bursting with bad behaviour. Film Stars isn’t interested in it. We get a brief mention of this over dinner with her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and salty sister Joy (Frances Barber), but this results in an opportunity for Gloria to deny it and slander the tabloids. The movie loves her too much to do anything with it.
Perhaps we’ve had enough scandalous biopics unearthing the rotten cores of their subjects and serving up portrayals that take no sides—we just had I, Tonya, after all. But where that movie took something cheap and enriched it with complex, contradictory storytelling, Film Stars takes Love, that most grand of movie emotions, and tries to trick the audience into believing we don’t need anything else. That might be true in songs, but in movies, I don’t want love unless it’s the wrong kind.
Feature image via theaustralian.com.au