I’m not sure Gloria Grahame ever got top billing in a film (except in the long-forgotten Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), but she was undoubtedly a real Hollywood star for roughly a decade from 1947-59. I remember the book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being published in the late 1980s. Peter Turner told the true story of how as a young actor he met Grahame in London, became her lover and friend and then two years later took the dying actor home to his family in Liverpool. I haven’t read the book, but according to readers and what Turner himself says, the new film keeps the main elements of the story and its nonlinear structure – moving backwards and forwards in time and place, sometimes seamlessly so that a dreamlike tone is achieved. The real events took place between 1979 and 1981 and it is has taken some thirty years to put the story on screen since David Puttnam took the first option on the rights. Apart from cinephiles and Golden Age film fans, most contemporary cinemagoers won’t necessarily know much about her films and Turner himself admits that he saw her films on DVD after her death. There were seven people in the audience for the screening we attended on a wet Sunday night. That’s a shame because it is a good film about an iconic figure.
Ms Grahame became trapped within a persona which was read by audiences as a sexy young woman who circumstances placed in unfortunate situations. There was an intelligence associated with the character, a skill with dialogue delivered in an unmistakeable voice and there was both a cheeky stance and an edge to her performances in several classic films noirs. In her best performance, in In a Lonely Place (1950), she matched Humphrey Bogart stride for stride. This was the role in which the reality of life in Hollywood seeped into the film’s narrative in several ways. Bogart’s company produced the film and Grahame was cast because Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall couldn’t be released from her studio contract. Grahame was then directed by Nick Ray, the husband she was in the process of divorcing. Ironically in today’s febrile climate, that film was about male abuse of women and Gloria Grahame certainly knew about what that could mean in Hollywood. Contracted to RKO, she feared Howard Hughes as the studio boss and felt that because of him she lost the opportunity to appear in Born Yesterday, the film that made Judy Holliday a star. It was another two years before she made her Oscar-winning performance in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (as Best Supporting Actor). She appeared in several major films including the terrific Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (the villain from Crossfire in 1947 in which her film noir persona was first developed). After that, the good roles dried up for an attractive woman and an accomplished actor who was only 36. But Gloria was a trained actor and she could move into TV and back to the stage. She had made two films in the UK in the 1950s and it was during a small-scale theatrical run that she met the jobbing actor Peter Turner in London in 1979.
The story goes that Annette Bening was asked by Stephen Frears, director of The Grifters (1990), to look at Gloria Grahame’s performances in her films noirs in preparation for her own role in a neo-noir. Now Bening is the same age as Grahame was in 1979-81 and she can play her for real. And she is very good indeed, not in the sense of mimicry, but in representing Gloria Grahame as she may well have been in later life. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Peter Turner. It’s a difficult role to play in order to make the romance and friendship work. It isn’t just a difference in age that marks the relationship but also the differences in social class and celebrity. Bell negotiates all of this believably. Some of the other casting decisions seemed a little more questionable to me. Peter Turner came from a large Liverpool family which in the film is represented mainly by brother Joe (Stephen Graham) and mum (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). All three are well-known faces in the UK (less so in the US, perhaps). Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is not a realist film but I found the trio distracting. Graham, a genuine Scouser, sports what appears to be a comedy wig, recalling jokes about bubble perms for Liverpool footballers in 1981. Walters too appears to have a rather prominent wig. Both Graham and Walters are great performers but didn’t work for me here. By contrast, in a California sequence, we see Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (a teacher of actors) and Frances Barber as her sister Joy (once married to Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John). This made sense.
I’m a big Gloria Grahame fan and I liked the film very much and yes, the tears came at the end. But what intrigued me about it most of all was the look and tone of the film. At its most extreme this was apparent in the California sequence in which Gloria takes Peter to her home by the beach in a spacious trailer. The whole of this sequence, including a drive down an ocean road that might have come from In a Lonely Place, was shot on a Pinewood stage where director Paul McGuigan was able to use the largest film screen ever built for a back projection exercise. The images were created by multiple digital projectors and the results can be seen in the clip below:
The intention was to evoke the style of the films noirs in which Gloria made her name. It certainly worked for me and I found the same sense of slight surrealism in many of the location shot sequences back in the UK. Liverpool in 1981 was characterised by ‘uprisings’ in Toxteth and a certain amount of desolation as industry collapsed and housing was not ‘regenerated’. Many parts of the city have changed considerably over the last twenty years. I kept thinking about the autobiographical films of Terence Davies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These invoked the Liverpool streets of the 1950s. Paul McGuigan’s film is probably quite different and I’d see this if I put them side by side, but the tone took me back to these representations of an earlier period. The ‘head-on’ image of Peter and his Dad in the local pub, with all the Labour posters on the wall works very well.
Director Paul McGuigan has had a career of ups and downs in cinema features with some high profile TV work to keep him busy. I hope this film at least pushes him back towards the limelight. It’s also a useful credit for Matt Greenhalgh who stuttered with The Look of Love after a strong beginning with Control and Nowhere Boy. He’s got back some of his Lancashire credentials for me. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Urszula Pontikos and the production design of Eve Stewart (assuming she wasn’t directly responsible for those wigs!).
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate and I’m not sure of what to make of their decisions about its release. The film opened on 150 sites with a screen average of £1,500 and No. 6 in the Top 10. However, after the second weekend and a drop of 54%, the longevity of the film in cinemas is in doubt. It hasn’t done badly and Lionsgate might be correct in thinking their strategy has maximised its potential. Still, it’s an odd approach in the current climate – neither a ‘wide’ mainstream release or a limited specialised release. The film has had plenty of coverage on Radio 4 and in the broadsheets and I think it is aiming for an older audience. It might do well on DVD. It’s the kind of film that perhaps doesn’t fit the current Picturehouse/Curzon audience (though they have probably sold the most tickets for it). Distribution in the UK is in such a state of flux that I guess ‘nobody really knows what to do with a film like this. My recommendation is to go and see it if it appears near you. The BFI have also re-released In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, but only on a handful of screens. These are the two best films that Gloria Grahame appeared in (and two of her best performances). See them first, if you can, then this film. Ms Grahame was a great Hollywood star who deserves to be remembered. There is a Sight and Sound essay by Serena Bramble in the December 2017 issue and a video essay here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/in-her-eyes-notes-gloria-grahame
Here are trailers for The Big Heat (1953) and In a Lonely Place (1950):
The BFI’s Gloria Grahame season continues on the South Bank until 30 December.