As an avowed devotee of film noir, I’ve always harbored a deep love for Gloria Grahame. So it should come as no surprise that I was eagerly anticipating Paul McGuigan’s biopic covering Grahame’s tragic twilight years, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. What did surprise me — and I’m pretty embarrassed by this confession — is that I’m starting to suspect that I might not be such a big fan of Annette Bening.
It’s an odd conclusion for me to draw on a number of levels. First of all, I always thought I liked Bening, dating back to my first exposure to her work when I saw The Great Outdoors as a kid. But after I found myself in the dissenting minority in panning 20th Century Women, and in the comfortable majority in objecting to Warren Beatty’s vanity project Rules Don’t Apply, I started to question the conventional wisdom asserting Bening’s place in the pantheon of great screen actresses. After screening Liverpool, I started racking my brain, trying to come up with a role from Bening’s past that had left me legitimately impressed — and I came up empty.
The strangest thing about this minor existential crisis is that Bening’s actually pretty good here. She nails Grahame’s breathy drawl and gets most of her physical mannerisms about as close to right as humanly possible, even if her performance is occasionally uneven. What goes wrong with this film is not so much Bening’s fault as that of writer/director McGuigan, who it seems is either too incompetent or too lazy to develop his characters and inexplicably employs superfluous stylistic flourishes that contribute nothing to the story he’s trying to tell.
And that story’s pretty interesting — or at least it should have been. McGuigan’s narrative, based on the memoir by Peter Turner, follows Grahame’s final days battling cancer at the family home of her much younger former flame, played here by Jamie Bell. McGuigan fails to delve into the motivations for both Grahame and Turner — we see flashbacks of their romance but never anything to suggest why they might have loved each other or, more importantly, why we should care about either of them. Turner comes across as an opportunistic industry climber who seems to hope that bedding a faded starlet might help his career prospects, and Grahame is presented as an aging narcissist clinging to past glories and desperate for someone to tell her she’s still pretty. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with these characterizations if McGuigan ever got around to developing some sort of arc for them to progress through, but it seems he couldn’t be bothered.
While it’s not a terrible movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a far less compelling treatment than its subject deserved. Try as she might, Bening simply can’t overcome the deficiencies McGuigan saddles her with — and, through no fault of her own, she can never live up to Gloria Grahame in my estimation. Now that I think about it, maybe I don’t dislike Annette Bening after all — maybe I just hate lazy filmmaking. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity.
Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.