She walks through the world as if still on screen, graceful and coquettish. Words leave her lips with a girlish whisper, eyelids flutter with a tarnished allure. So what if her face carries the lines of a life lived to the full? If her delicate hands sport spots and veins? Wrinkles can be filled, hands can be hidden. Even the disease eating her from the inside out can be covered with smiles and giggles and lies.
Gloria Grahame is still an actress, she knows. She’s still a beauty, she hopes.
She was a big deal back in the day. Not Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor big, maybe, but big enough. “She always played the tart,” someone says. But no matter: Her sultry looks and childish, whispered voice earned her praise and pride of place on the silver screen. She co-starred with Bogey. Appeared with Sinatra. She took home a guy named Oscar, too.
But actresses age quickly in Hollywood, especially those who play the tart. Twenty-five years past her prime, still she labors on, taking smaller roles in smaller films or acting for a smaller screen. She finds her way to the stage, too—headlining big productions in second-tier cities.
And so in 1979, she finds herself in Liverpool—renting a place on Primrose Hill, a few doors down from fledgling actor Peter Turner. She asks him for a dance lesson in exchange for a drink. “If you fix me a drink, I’ll come in and clean your bathroom,” he quips.
The dance turns into a date. The date turns into a romance. The romance turns into a torrid, multi-continent relationship. She takes him to California to meet his mother, whisks him away to New York to live with her in her sprawling apartment. She’s old enough to be Peter’s mother, of course, and then some. But Gloria’s always had a thing for younger men, and Peter—well, Peter’s too love-struck to care.
The relationship doesn’t last. None of Gloria’s do. Her come-hither whisper flips to profanity-laced tirades, her batting eyelashes make way for baleful glares. They part ways, and Peter heads back to England, returning to the stage.
Then, in 1981, Gloria contacts Peter again, and he’s shocked by the change in her. Those flashing eyes have dulled, the vivacious face has paled. She’s sick. She admits so herself. But she knows the cure: Peter. Peter’s mother and father. Peter’s house. Peter’s home.
“Could you take me to Liverpool?” she asks, her whisper-sweet voice softer now, weaker. “I could get better there.”
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. It says so right in the title. Gloria and Peter both hope it’s true.
Gloria and Peter’s relationship comes freighted with its share of problems. But whatever those may be, let’s not deny this simple, powerful truth: Peter loves Gloria—wholly, tenderly and sacrificially.
We initially see his devotion when his romance with Gloria is at its most passionate, but it really comes to the forefront when the relationship hits its second stanza, when Gloria is ill. He cares for her deeply, and so he cares for her literally, even going so far as to “burp” her. It’s not easy work, and he doesn’t do it perfectly. But the love and tenderness he shows takes this problematic relationship to a place of deep poignancy.
But it’s not just Peter who steps up his game.
Gloria turns to Peter and his family not as a star, but as a friend and person in need, someone who’s earnestly seeking a place filled with genuine love and affection. She finds it in Liverpool, particularly with Peter’s mom, Bella. She treats Gloria as if she’s something between a long-lost friend and one of her own kids (even though, truthfully, they’re probably about the same age). But it’s not just a one-way relationship. When Bella debates whether to travel halfway around the globe to see one of her own sons (who’s in the military), Gloria encourages her to do so: “A son always needs his mama, no matter how old they get,” she tells Bella.
[Spoiler Warning] Gloria can come across as selfish and vain, a stereotypical movie star at times. But sometimes, those moments are, in fact, acts. When she and Peter break up, Peter thinks it’s because she’s grown tired of him. In reality, she learns that she has cancer: Not wanting Peter to be saddled with her sickness, she treats him horribly, essentially forcing him to leave her. When Gloria returns to Liverpool, she’s in fact dying. It’s not clear whether she thinks that she really can get better in Liverpool or whether she just wants to spend her last few weeks with people she’s grown curiously attached to. But when Gloria realizes that her presence has become a burden for the family, she decides that it’s time to let her real family know about her sickness (she’s kept them in the dark as well, though there’s no evidence that her relationship with her kids is at all strained) and return home.
Bella says goodbye to Gloria with a benediction of sorts: “May the Lord protect you, Gloria.” We hear the phrase “God save the Queen.” Peter and Gloria recite a scene from Romeo and Juliet that draws parallels between a kiss and a prayer: “Then dear saint, let lips do what hands do,” the scene reads in part. “They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.”
Gloria tells Peter that she’s had four husbands—perhaps not all that unusual in Golden Age Hollywood. But when he learns that one of those husbands was her own stepson from a previous marriage, he’s admittedly taken aback. Gloria says that her stepson/husband was of legal age when they married, but a dinner guest shrewishly asks how old he was when “you first seduced him.” (It’s rumored that the real Gloria Grahame first hooked up with her stepson when the lad was just 13 years old.) During the same dinner party, Gloria’s mother pleads with Peter to never, ever marry Gloria: “It would be too embarrassing,” she says.
They don’t marry, but they do have a lot of sex. We see them in bed together sometimes. In one scene, Gloria’s breast is exposed. Elsewhere they kiss and embrace and hurriedly remove clothing (we see both occasionally in their underwear). Eventually, they cohabitate. They share confessions of previous unorthodox affairs, too. “In the past, I’ve enjoyed boyfriends as well as girlfriends,” Peter admits to Gloria. “Yeah? I’ve enjoyed girlfriends as well as boyfriends. It’s OK.”
Gloria is still widely admired. When she greets someone during a crowded after-party, Peter later whispers (in so many words) that the man obviously wanted to sleep with her. Gloria corrects him: “Darling, everybody wants to f— me,” she says. She and Peter exchange sexual banter on occasion, but when their relationship is at an ebb and Peter tries to make the moves on her while they’re in bed, Gloria pushes him away, telling him to stop. Around that same time, Peter begins to suspect that Gloria is having an affair.
Gloria sums up a play that she’s in as one about the same old stuff: “Sin, sex, salvation.” She’s also pretty wrapped up in her looks, even though she’s quite aware that she’s getting older. Sometimes Gloria tells others to turn off lights that are too bright—trying to obscure, it would seem, her age. When she tells Peter that she hopes one day to play Juliet, Peter is surprised—a big mistake that leads to a row. “You think I’m too old to play Juliet?” she asks.
Gloria and Peter go to see the movie Alien, and they (and we) see the infamous chest-bursting scene (along with Peter’s horrified reaction).
Gloria slaps Peter. Peter gets into a physical altercation with his brother in the family kitchen. Gloria, while prepping for a play, collapses in her dressing room. She sometimes threatens to inflict physical harm upon those who’ve made her really angry.
Gloria doesn’t just act on stage: She often plays a role in real life, too, sometimes responding to compliments with a charmingly antiquated “gosh” in an almost sing-song, girlish voice. But when she gets angry, the façade comes down and her language can be blistering. We hear more than 30 f-words and about half a dozen s-words, many of them uttered by Gloria. Other vulgarities include “b–ch” and British profanities such as “bloody” and “b–locks.” God’s name is misused about five times, once with the word “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused once.
“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke?” Peter asks Gloria. “Yeah, Humphrey Bogart,” she says. “I didn’t like it then, either.”
Gloria does indeed smoke, and she and others drink as well—wine, champagne, whiskey and cocktails, along with perhaps a beer or two.
Peter’s sister-in-law works at a gambling parlor, and Peter spends an evening there. We hear a reference to gambling in an old song.
[Spoiler Warning] Gloria, for some reason, doesn’t want her children to know that she’s really, really sick. Peter promises her that he won’t say anything, but it creates some serious tension in the Turner household. “It’s not right, Peter love,” his mother tells him. “No,” Peter agrees, “but it’s what she wants.”
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on the life of the real Gloria Grahame, an Oscar-winning actress largely forgotten now. (Most of us have probably seen her briefly in It’s a Wonderful Life, where she played Violet Bick). Her career in the tabloids outlasted her fame on the screen, and she was allegedly obsessed with her beauty. As she got older, she apparently began stuffing cotton between her lips and teeth to make her face look fuller.
She’s the sort of character who could become a caricature in less careful hands. But in this film—based on a book written by the real Peter Turner and with Gloria played by the great Annette Bening—she becomes a living, breathing, complex person. Yes, she can be vain and petty. But underneath the feigned, alluring vulnerability, we find someone who’s truly vulnerable. Gloria, in the midst of a life-altering crisis, seeks not the silver, glittered unreality of Hollywood, but the real, gritty love found in Liverpool. That’s a pretty great message, really.
Too bad so much else came along for the ride.
That tender love begins as a tawdry seduction—a crass and profane and luridly lusty affair. We’re spared few details here, which will mute for many the poignant final act. Granted, I’m sure all this and more is very much reflective of Grahame’s own real-life story; but I’m not sure if that excuses it, and I’m positive it makes it no easier or advisable to watch.
For all of Bening’s and Jamie Bell’s (Peter Turner’s) stellar work here (and don’t be surprised if one or both land Oscar noms), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is the sort of movie that, one might argue, Discerning Filmgoers Won’t See in Theaters. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.