Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on a memoir by Peter Turner, is about the brief but passionate relationship between Peter and Oscar-winning but fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, who had memorable supporting roles in films like It’s a Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Peter and Gloria met in 1979, two years before Gloria died, when Peter was a much younger struggling stage actor in Liverpool. After striking up an unlikely friendship they fell in love.
Exceptional performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the lead roles more than make up for the occasional feeling that their story is somewhat rushed and disjointed. Bening is particularly wonderful, and I predict an Oscar nomination. There are also fine supporting performances from the likes of Julie Walters, Stephen Graham and (in one memorable scene) Vanessa Redgrave.
Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay flashes between in 1979 and 1981, and Paul McGuigan’s direction effectively switches between the two time periods by having Peter literally open doors into the past. McGuigan’s directorial flair is also demonstrated in a later pivotal scene, which is shown twice – once from Peter’s frustrated point of view, and again, more movingly, from Gloria’s, as she attempts to hide her illness from him and deliberately drive him away.
The sense of time and place is very well done. For example, early in their relationship, Peter and Gloria attend a screening of Alien and are seen amongst the shocked audience during the notorious chest-bursting scene (“Well that was f***ing terrifying” is Peter’s verdict, in the pub afterwards). Liverpudlian terraced housing contrasts with more glamourous LA and New York settings, and somehow the combination of grit and glamour makes the love story more credible. The chemistry between the leads is excellent, particularly in Gloria’s occasional moments of insecurity about the big age gap, and the tender, heartbreaking way Peter looks after Gloria as she becomes ill.
I should add the usual warning about bad language and sexual content for those who appreciate them, but all things considered, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a very fine weepie, brilliantly underpinned by two outstanding leads.