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can tell you everything you need to know about her character in a single, unfolding scene. That isn’t news, of course, but it’s always rewarding to see her in action, even though her latest movie, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool,” doesn’t measure up to her performance.
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Ms. Bening plays the once-lustrous Hollywood star
who has been touring the English provinces as
in a stage production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Alone and frightened after falling desperately ill, Gloria turns to Peter Turner (
), a much younger man, and sometime actor, with whom she’d had an affair several years earlier, starting in 1978. “I’ll get better,” she tells Peter, sitting in bed in his family’s modest Liverpool home. Her tone is bright but beseeching, and scarily detached; she wants him to believe what she doesn’t believe herself. When he asks “What about your family?” she turns schoolgirl-sweet and says he and his family are all she needs. When he urges her to go to a hospital, she becomes a furious, almost feral child and barks “No!” In no time flat, and with a full spectrum of emotional colors, Ms. Bening gives us a portrait of a volatile woman who has come back to a place where love once was. (The cast includes two other great actresses in lesser roles:
as Peter’s mother,
and Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother,
The film was directed by Paul McGuigan from an adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name. The screenplay, by
flashes back to the couple’s first meeting in a London boarding house, where a radiantly charming Gloria is eager to dance and finds a superb partner in Peter: Mr. Bell, you may remember, made his movie debut 17 years ago as the aspiring young dancer of the title in “
” and he’s greatly appealing here. Subsequent flashbacks evoke the couple’s romantic, or fraught, encounters in California and New York. Their breakup, in Manhattan, is examined—and belabored—from his point of view and then hers. (The excellent cinematographer, Urszula Pontikos, lights some of her scenes like atmospheric stage sets. Occasionally she evokes the rear-projection effects of
noir classics, as in a scene in Malibu that pays its respects to Grahame and
‘s beach scene from “In a Lonely Place.”)
The movie’s mosaic structure is a reasonable alternative to a straight-line narrative, but it weakens the story’s impact, since it hops all over the place, and can’t create drama, of which there isn’t all that much in the story of two people falling in and then out of love. Nor does it solve the problem of the film’s predictability. When Gloria, in terrible pain at the outset, insists that it’s only gas, we know better, and we’re meant to know better, but knowing doesn’t make the heart beat faster.
“Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” is an interesting footnote to Hollywood history: Gloria Grahame, a distinctive star with an inimitable style, did have a love affair with an Englishman almost 30 years her junior; did fall on hard times, and then, in physical and spiritual torment, did seek support and solace in her former lover. The fleshing out of the story feels thin, and sometimes nakedly contrived, as in a passage toward the end when Peter and Gloria, on an empty stage in a local theater, recite lines to each other from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and
” Yet the film has moments of surprising grace and tenderness. Above all it has Ms. Bening’s Gloria, still alive to the world though she’s in danger of leaving it.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the December 29, 2017, print edition as ‘Bening’s the Big Heat in ‘Film Stars’.’