Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2017 1:33 pm 
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Sad, sweet romance

This is a slight story, but it could tear you up. Minor though the film's success is, it represents the best in director Paul McGuigan's terrible CV. It is an impressive two-hander about the sad end of fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame and her love affair with the struggling young English actor Peter Turner, providing plum roles for Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, respectively. A wistful, hopeless holding onto life is matched by a wistful, hopeless holding onto love. It's only make- believe. But is the love real? At least, in this frail but overproduced wisp of a movie,Peter Turner's feelings for his failing older Hollywood diva are, thanks to the simple, authentic performance of Jamie Bell. Bell is a touching embodiment of selfless age-indifferent love and robust youth. Bening provides the pale glimmer of fading dreams and vanishing health with her usual sparkle and elegance.

Through a back-and-forth mix of flashbacks and present-time scenes we learn that when Peter had his first fling with Gloria, her work as a film star was already in full decline. And though perhaps she didn't know it yet, cancer was eating away at her, she not having had the necessary final treatments out of reasons of vanity, and the desire to maintain a vanishing career. But the make-believe dominated at first. When she learns the truth, at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, Gloria picks a fight with Peter and sends him away. That's in 1979. A couple years later, she collapses in Lancaster before a performance in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Peter is hurt to learn that she hasn't even told him she's in England. She is living in fantasy and denial, pretending her abdominal pains are only "gas." Now she wants his mother to take care of her at his childhood home in Liverpool.

A flashback shows how Peter met Gloria in 1978 when they were living in a London theatrical boarding house, he in a small room, she in a suite - but still in straitened circumstances acting in a minor production while he was "between roles." They connect when she asks him to disco-dance with her to "Stayin' Alive," in the spirit of Saturday Night Fever. Friendship turns to sex and worship by Peter, 26-year-old with four-times-wed 55-year-old. They have (colorfully realized, slightly unreal) moments together in LA and the Big Apple. Then she cuts him off, till she accidentally reappears.

Back in the tragic present, Gloria knows Peter's family, his mother Bella (Julie Walters), father Joe (Kenneth Cranham), and brother Joe Jr. (Stephen Graham), - all of whom perform well - and his parents were fans of Miss Grahame back in the day of her black-and-white fame and saw all her pictures. But when they take her in as she wants to be now it's out of simple human kindness, not star-worship. Gloria takes refuge in fantasy and superstitious remedies from her worsening condition, which Peter may help stave off for a while through the tonic of his youthful energy.

The movie shows off Bell's ripped torso, emphasizing the contrast with the frail Grahame, who runs on chutzpah and a desire to charm. She has wanted, impractically, to play Juliet to his Romeo. He has angered her by suggesting, meaning no harm, that she'd be better now as the Nurse. To make up for that earlier faux pas, he takes her, failing as she is now, to the Liverpool theater and, allowed on the stage, they recite the kissing scene of Shakespeare's tragedy in the leads, both speaking barely in whispers. If this works for you, so will the whole film. But even if it may seem to tip into bathos once or twice, most of McGuigan's direction and Matt Greenhalgh's adaptation of Peter Turner's 1986 memoir handle the material with delicacy.

Vanessa Redgrave appears fleetingly as Grahame's tough theatrical mother. There is mention of her scandalous seduction of her own stepson. But what counts is her stubborn dedication to a dream recovery and the way she wears sunglasses and makeup and clicks her tongue and smokes. "Did anyone tell you you hold a cigarette like Lauren Bacall?" Peter asks. "Yes, by Bogie," Grahame anwers, "And I didn't like it any better when he said it."

This isn't just a May-December romance but a Liebestod cut short. Reality intervenes when Peter calls Grahame's doctor in New York, learns the truth, and later, calls her family and allows her son to come and take her away. And so, though he's only deprived of Miss Grahame's final moments - as he predicts the plane trip to New York is too much for her and she expires a day later - nothing could be sadder than having the most emotional moment of Peter Turner's young life ripped away from him, and Jamie Bell's performance is quietly heartbreaking. Still, the film is limited because Gloria is all flash and filigree and fading screen memories, and Peter is a young man who hasn't done much, his background built up mainly from his touching love for a diva he'd only seen once on television.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, 105 mins., debuted at Telluride 1 Sept. 2017, playing at a dozen other festivals including Toronto and London. UK release 16 Nov. 2017; limited US theatrical release 29 Dec. Watched at Angelika Film Center, NYC 31 Dec. Metacritic rating 66%. Here's a pr├ęcis of his memoir by Peter Turner for the Daily Mail.


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