One of the highlights of my AFI FEST experience was a private concert hosted by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. Elvis Costello sang his new song “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way” before taking over the piano and singing other songs.
That was after the special screening of Bening and Bell’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and that cozy concert might have influenced my warm feelings for the movie. The movie opened at the end of December in the United States, but with its dark theme, didn’t attract much attention yet in this #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, the movie reminds us what happened to women in that older Hollywood when their expiration date was up.
The particular film star in question is Gloria Grahame (Bening). Grahame had a featured role in the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A year later, in the film noir “Crossfire,” Grahame’s performance earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In 1952, she won an Oscar in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” a film that starred Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas. Grahame plays the shallow wife of a professor (Douglas) who will, after her scandalous death, write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Musical theater fans may remember Grahame as Ado Annie in the 1955 film, “Oklahoma!” That film made Shirley Jones a star, but Grahame, best known for her as a film noir femme fatale, was considered miscast. After that movie, her film career waned. On TV, she played a film star living in the past in “The Outer Limits” episode “The Guests.” In the 1976 TV mini series, she played Sue Prescott, the mother of the “Rich Man” Rudy’s sweetheart.
In her personal life, Grahame married four times, the first time to fellow actor Stanley Clements (1945-1948). She then married director Nicholas Ray (1948-1952) with whom she had a son. Her third marriage was to producer Cy Howard (1954-1957) with whom she had a daughter. Her last marriage was to the son of her second husband by his first wife, actor Tony Ray (1960-1976). They had two children, a son and a daughter.
Her last marriage created a scandal that damaged her career, but Grahame, concerned about her looks has also been undergoing plastic surgery since the 1940s and there was nerve damage. In 1974, Grahame was diagnosed with cancer that went into remission but was back by 1980.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” takes place after Grahame has been diagnoses with cancer, but when she meets Peter Turner in Liverpool, she doesn’t reveal that to him. Grahame is a glamorous movie star, renting a large eccentrically furnished flat in the same building as Turner (Bell) and starring in a stage production.
Turner is dazzled by her reputation, and intrigued by her coy behavior. He’s an aspiring actor and she still projects slightly tarnished glow of Hollywood. Yet she’s a rose with a few thorns, tortured by her fight with aging and her defiant fear of death.
Based on a book by Turner, this is a tragic love story, where Grahame finds true love in the last years of her life with a much younger man. Today we have a name for such women, cougars. In the 1980s, May-December romances between older men and much younger women were more acceptable than between older women and younger men. Grahame has some kind of magnetism and Bening is fearless in her portrayal of a woman with a fragile ego and a determination to act in defiance of age and disease.
With the growing influence of women, the stories of older women are being told, including older women with younger men. That this is based on a true story makes this movie more important to balance out the trend of male actors who continue to play heroes while the age of their romantic interests remains the same. For women of a certain age, “Film Stars Don’t Die” provides hope that love is possible at any age. The chemistry between Bening and Bell is touching as Bell’s Turner transforms from hopeful student to tender nurse.
Bell and Bening were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress for the British Academy Film Awards.