Reel Dad: Annette Bening pays tribute to Gloria Grahame in haunting film

Every year, the Oscars seem to overlook an original performance that celebrates the authenticity an actor can generate in an artificial medium. The neglected performer of 2016 — Annette Bening as the ultimate earth mother in 20th Century Women — was again ignored this year for her captivating portrayal of actress Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Hopefully, some year soon, the Academy will pay attention.

Oscar did recognize Grahame, herself, with a Best Supporting Actress award in 1952 for The Bad and the Beautiful. By that time her career as a femme fatale had peaked following haunting portrayals in such film noir classics as Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. After winning the Oscar, Grahame soared in Not as a Stranger and the movie version of Oklahoma! But when she hit age 40 — at that time a closing call for film actresses — she bounced from television to stage, with a few films, until she died at age 57, forgotten by the industry that created her.

Paul McGuigan’s look at Grahame’s last months — now available on demand and online after playing in few theaters — takes us inside the heart and head of a woman with a courage to live but limited by her fear of demise. This Grahame is not the flamboyant woman we would see on screen. Instead she is quiet, vulnerable, lacking the anticipated animation, openly revealing her hopes and regrets. She knows who she is. She doesn’t waste time pretending to still be a big star. She realizes, as the film opens, that “playing the provinces” across England, in drab theaters and humble surroundings, cannot replicate the days of red carpets and limousines. Grahame sees the ground she has hit.

When she begins an improbable love affair with a young man named Peter — played by Jamie Bell, best remembered for Billy Elliott — the film avoids the trappings of a typical May-December romance. Theirs becomes a deep friendship, with romantic overtones, connecting two lost souls each searching for a sense of calm. For Peter, Grahame offers a respite from the loud voices of his domineering family; for Grahame, Peter brings a sense of hope that tomorrow can be that reason to get up in the morning. While a sense of doom overshadows the relationship, McGuigan carefully avoids letting the film predict its own plot. The resolution, while inevitable, feels spontaneous because it’s so well played.

Bening is, once again, a revelation. She brings the humanity and humor that frames every role she plays, always finding what’s bright in a character regardless of the darkness. But Bening doesn’t copy herself; she is a character actress disguised in a star’s personality. And when given a part of this complexity, she submerges that personality to inhabit every dimension of a complex woman. Without attempting to imitate Grahame’s sultry voice, Bening creates her own firestorm by igniting the woman’s soul. It’s a role of a lifetime in a career filled with many such roles.

Fortunately, home video makes it easy to see a film neglected by its distributors and overlooked by audiences. Bening should have been one of the actresses honored on Oscar night. Hopefully, she will soon get another chance.

Film Nutritional Value: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

  • Content: Medium. The story of how a famous actress is haunted by her past and hopeful for her future gives Annette Bening yet another role of a lifetime. But Oscar didn’t notice.
  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to the sensitive direction of Paul McGuigan, the film avoids the temptation to be too Hollywood about a star who was quite Hollywood.
  • Message: Medium. While the film could not be called “a message picture” it does offer an interesting view of how some people view the last chapter of a story.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about how people relate to each other, and react to their challenges, can be meaningful.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about an iconic figure in the history of movies.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, running 1 hour and 45 minutes, is rated R for “language, some sexual content, and brief nudity.”4 Popcorn buckets. 

Hitchcock: How he could have directed Gloria Grahame

Alfred Hitchcock never directed Gloria Grahame in a movie.
Interestingly, one of her best films, Sudden Fear, looks and feels like a Hitchcock film, as if David Miller had channeled the famed moviemaker.
But Hitchcock was doing something at the time, perhaps pondering how to thrill moviegoers with Rear Window or Vertigo.
Of course, For anyone who hesitates to step into a shower after watching the classic film Psycho, the movie Hitchcock offers a delicious behind-the-scenes look at how cinema treasures are made. With a fun screenplay, rich visuals and delicious performances, this is an ideal celluloid confection. And great fun to ponder how Gloria Grahame could have played the role of Marion, portrayed by Janet Leigh.
Movie buffs have savored Psycho since it premiered in 1960. With an unconventional narrative — telling the story in three acts and killing off a major character early in the film — this deceptively complex film inspires film fans to dissect its many elements. As Stephen Rebello details in his book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the real impact of the film — quite daring for the time — emerges from its creative treatment of violent images. Director Hitchcock delivers more chills through suggestion than most filmmakers achieve with detailed images.
Hitchcock’s personality magically comes to life in Hitchcock as both a master moviemaker and a man troubled by his relationships with women. With great respect for the detail of Rebello’s book, the film offers marvelous anecdotes about how Psycho travels to the screen. Hitchcock is so filled with gossip and gab that it’s as delicious a movie diversion as we have been treated in quite some time. With the tease of a tabloid, balanced with the nuance of a novel, director Sacha Gervasi delivers a most entertaining view of Hollywood as well as an insightful look at the creative mind behind so many movies. Hitchcock always delights and never disappoints.
Sir Anthony Hopkins, assisted by great makeup, creates a convincing impersonation of Hitchcock complete with the director’s rotund physical appearance and distinct speaking voice. The actor does not recreate “Hitch” — who became, thanks to television, a well-known character — as much as he uses gesture and expression to suggest how the director could have behaved. Director Gervasi cleverly parodies Hitchock’s introduction to his weekly series to introduce the film with subtle suggestion of the fun yet to come.
As appealing as Hopkins’ performance may be, the women in Hitchcock deliver the award-worthy performances. Helen Mirren, as the director’s wife and creative partner Alma, creates a memorable characterization of a woman talented enough to make a difference to what appears on the screen and insightful enough to know how to care for a creative spirit. Scarlett Johansson offers a pitch-perfect rendition of Janet Leigh in a remarkable portrayal that captures the magic of this actress while recreating her moments in Psycho.
What makes Hitchcock such fun — much as what makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool meaningful — is its marvelous attention to detail from the specificity of the shots from the original film to the gestures of the actors and the period detail of the physical production. The movie returns us to a time when the movies were as much about the people who made them as what we experienced in a theater. For a filmmaker as driven as Hitchcock, pushing the creative limits was all in a day’s work.
If only he had cast Gloria Grahame in that role.

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