Sunday 26 November 2017

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Morning Gloria

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool
2017 UK Directed by Paul McGuigan
UK cinema release print.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan (whose wonderful, much underrated film Victor Frankenstein was reviewed by me here) and partially produced by EON films. Yep, that EON films... set up as Everything Or Nothing to produce the James Bond films decades ago. Indeed, this film is co-produced by Barbara Broccoli and it was certainly a surprise seeing the EON name heading up the movie, since their only ever non-Bond film since the company’s inception in 1961 was the 1963 film Call Me Bwana. All I can say here is... they certainly know how to churn out a quality product.

The film tells the true life story of a young man called Peter Turner (the screenplay is co-written by him and based on his memoir), played here by Jamie Bell... and depicts his relationship with a woman almost thirty years older than him, legendary Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, played here by Annette Bening.

Now I’ve always liked Gloria Grahame and, if asked for a personal listing of great actresses, I never fail to include her name. However, that being said, much as I like her I’ve only ever seen her in two of her movies. The thing is though, her sometimes smouldering but somehow vulnerable presence lodges itself in one’s mind with such presence that her image haunts you in a truly iconic way. The two roles I’ve seen her in were quite different from each other but both absolutely amazing. As Violet, the town... um... well I guess they didn’t spell it out so simply  in movies in those days so let’s just say the town’s fallen woman, Violet, in Frank Capra’s totally brilliant Christmas movie It’s A Wonderful Life, is one of those roles. The character who tries to redeem herself, with Jimmy Stewart’s help, by trying to get out of Bedford Falls and leave her old life behind but who, in the end, returns the money Stewart has given her to help out when he is in dire need (along with much of the rest of the town’s folk, of course). The other time I saw her and loved her was as the moll of Lee Marvin’s character in the classic Fritz Lang movie, The Big Heat. The gal who gets mutilated by Marvin when he throws scalding hot coffee in her face and who ends up helping out Glen Ford’s revenge fuelled police inspector as a result. Both wonderful roles and, if I never see another film with her in... well, those two would be enough for me to remember her by.

Annette Bening here plays her in her decline, over the last few years of her life and it’s a wonderful realisation, I have to say. This is the first time I’ve ever really taken notice of Annette Bening, to be honest. She’s never been an actress I’ve been all that interested in or impressed with but the performance here is absolutely astonishing and it would seem I’ve been doing Miss Bening an injustice. As much as I would like Gal Gadot to take home an Oscar next year for Wonder Woman (reviewed here), I honestly wouldn’t mind that much if Bening got one for this instead. Goodness knows, she really deserves it.

The film opens with Bening’s Gloria Grahame prepping herself in a dressing room in the UK somewhere for her evening role in a theatrical production of The Glass Menagerie. The opening is filled with various close ups of her putting on her make-up etc without you ever getting a good look at her until, at the end of the sequence, she passes out in the dressing room as she is about to go on stage. Then her ex-boyfriend, Peter Turner as played by Bell, is called and he takes her back to his family in Liverpool, in the hopes she will recover from what he later, over the course of the film, discovers is cancer in its final stages.

Jamie Bell is, of course, truly excellent. He’s not one of those actors who I’ve seen that much of but, every time I do see him in something, he never fails to impress me. His chemistry with Bening is absurdly brilliant and between the two of them, they manage to pull off what some people may find is a tricky relationship with absolute credibility and I could easily watch these two playing these kind of roles together for hours. They are the figureheads of a great cast which also includes the real Peter Turner in a small role and the always excellent Julie Walters as Peter’s mum.

The direction and design/structure is pretty cool too and, though it would be true to say that the story and various narrative beats are perhaps a little predictable and clichéd, they are also ‘just right’ for the tale showcased here and the director does manage to surprise with the way in which scenes are run into each other in terms of creative transitions between different points in time... not to mention some excellent shot compositions from time to time.

For instance, I was in quite unknown territory at the start of the movie because all the characters know each other already and have an established history with each other. I was five or more minutes into the movie thinking that things weren’t very clear in explaining who these people were and that, at some point soon, the film was going to have to start going into flashback mode. Sure enough, when Jamie Bell walks out of a bedroom and through the landing of his mother’s house, the shot transitions to another place and time with a similar environment and we are suddenly at the very start of Pete and Gloria’s first encounter. The film then continued to impress me by always transitioning back to the 1980s after a while and continuing the narrative of ‘the last days of Gloria’ before hurtling back to another point in the past of these two character’s lives... a bit like a set of Russian dolls which keep unfolding from each other and it’s an idea that works well. It’s a bit like watching a Nicholas Roeg movie in that respect, although the transitions are less violent and don’t take you on such an aggressively highlighted path as Roeg’s work.

There’s a truly unusual scene where Pete and Gloria are in her hotel room disco dancing and the camera movements are kinda swaying up and down to the beat of the music on top of all the movement already created in the shot by the two dancing figures and, rather than alienate me like a scene like this often might, it sucked me into the rhythm of the piece in a great way. Another, truly wondrous and funny moment is when Pete takes Gloria to see the new movie of the time they are in at that particular point... Ridley Scott’s classic ALIEN. He is utterly terrified and has to hide his face in her lap but Gloria is just laughing at the make believe shenanigans of the chest burster sequence and admiring the craft of what the director was able to get away with. It’s quite a telling and brilliant scene.

The script is brilliant too, with some really great moments of sparkly dialogue such as when Pete tells Grahame she reminds him of Lauren Bacall when she smokes and she informs him the last person who told her that was, indeed, Humphrey Bogart... and she didn’t like it then, either. Or the time when they go to the after party of one of her theatrical appearances and Pete whispers to her that a certain person they were just talking to obviously wants to fuck her. “Darling... everyone in this room wants to fuck me.”, she replies. Yeah, there are some really great comedy moments in this but the film is emotionally moving too and even, in some scenes, shows up one of the character flaws of being a vain Hollywood star in a world where glamour can sometimes be as important as talent.

And I don’t have much more to say about this one, I guess. The film ends beautifully with some real footage of Miss Grahame as she, famously, accepted her Oscar in a very particular way and Bob Hope’s comment after... I won’t spoil that bit of footage for you if you’ve never seen it but, go watch this movie and take a look. I absolutely loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (and need to read the book at some point, I think) and so, of course, left the auditorium with tears flowing down my cheeks. If you are into the art of cinema, even if you don’t know who Gloria Grahame was and why she is so well remembered today, then you will not want to miss out on this one. Especially since the two leads are so brilliant here. This is one of those movies which I think will be playing late at night on the telly every Christmas holiday as a ‘quality alternative’ to whatever bizarre festive things are showing on rival channels but, in the meantime, I’ll definitely be picking up a Blu Ray of this one when it gets a release.

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