Now playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center is “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” This film tracks Hollywood star Gloria Grahame’s love affair with a younger man during her declining years. Grahame is best known for playing sultry film noir sirens in the ’50s.
Directed by Paul McGuigan, “Film Stars Don’t Die” is based on the memoir by Grahame’s actual lover, Peter Turner. Although the film focuses on Grahame, it is not a biopic. For those unfamiliar with her, Grahame ranked in celebrity at the time with Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. Her role as Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) launched her film career, and she went on to star with actors like Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), and her career peaked in 1953 with “The Big Heat.” It then began to decline after “Oklahoma!” (1955), when the public learned about her rumored love affair with Tony Ray, the 13-year-old son of her second husband, director Nicholas Ray. He eventually became her fourth husband.
Annette Bening, a four-time Oscar nominee who won a Golden Globe in 2011 for “The Kids are All Right,” plays Grahame. Viewers meet Grahame while she is staying in Liverpool with her former lover, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), at his parents’ house. His mother Bella (Julie Walters) dotes on Grahame, who is showing the ravages of illness. The film flashes back to 1979, when Grahame meets Turner in a boarding house while she performs onstage, and the two fall in love. The romance blossoms even though Grahame is almost 30 years older than 26-year-old Turner. Bening is almost 60, while Bell is 32.
In California, where she owns a trailer with a view of the Pacific, Grahame introduces Turner to her mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). They also spend time in New York, where Grahame learns that the breast cancer in remission has returned. Unwilling to let Turner bear the brunt of her impending illness, she rebuffs him, and their romantic relationship ends.
Attached to the Turners as a second family, Grahame asks to stay in their Liverpool home. Even though their affair is over, her ex-lover takes care of her as the end of her life approaches.
In “Film Stars Don’t Die,” Grahame does not appear as the glamorous beauty she once was. Instead, the love affair that is the focus of the film takes place when she is in her 50s. Close-ups of Bening, a much admired actress, depict Grahame as an aging and ill woman. She hides the nature of her illness from Turner as well as her four children. Like “Sunset Boulevard,” “Film Stars Don’t Die” tells a compelling story about a love affair of a movie star who is aging and in decline.
Information and tickets for this and other Martha’s Vineyard Film Society films are available at mvfilmsociety.com.