Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) was a movie star in the nineteen-fifties who could boast a string of leading roles and an Oscar to her name, but in her private life she was less forthcoming to admit she had had a string of husbands and lovers too. The last of those was 28-year-old Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a Liverpudlian aspiring actor who she met in his home town when she was acting in a play there during 1979, some time after her heyday. But people still remembered her - she was a memorable actress, after all - even if Peter was unaware of who she was at first. What he didn't know was the state of Gloria's health, which had not been great recently; the fact was, she was dying.
Every film buff loves a good obituary, but surprisingly few movies have been made about the twilight years of the stars as they look back on their lives and look forward to an uncertain, likely very short, future. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool was one of those, however, it was based on Turner's memoir of Grahame and obviously straight from the heart, as you could tell by the tone of this adaptation, though it was not one that caught on much with the public, notably as the awards buzz for Bening resulted in very little reward. Maybe the title put them off, maybe the plot description was enough to have them selecting something else to watch, but it didn't make an impression.
On watching it, you could understand why, as once you knew the premise, the tale of the last days of a faded celebrity, it was as if someone had told you the ending to the film before you had seen it, and you felt it wasn't going to enlighten you very much, especially if you had no idea who Grahame was, or had at one point and forgotten. This made for depressing viewing as the teary-eyed mood progressed through flashbacks for happier times for Gloria and Peter, interspersed with scenes where she was ailing increasingly badly, another reminder of the way that the movies do not deal with death too readily when it's simply something most audiences don't wish to dwell on.
Which was curious in its way, as characters die in the movies all the time, either to move us with emotion, to be satisfied the baddies are getting their just deserts, or simply as cannon fodder as a random extra is dispatched in a war yarn, horror flick or action thriller. But to actually consider the implications of what happens to the folks around those who die, never mind the victims themselves, is a tough ask for entertainment, and this didn't really manage to get over that hurdle when, as mentioned, we may like to pay tribute to those celebrities or people of note who pass away that we respect, but the pitiless details of their demise are best not focused on too far; it's just not what most of us prefer to think about, after all, you would rather not muse over the suffering of someone you like.
Or love. The terminal illness Gloria endures does prove that no matter how famous you are, or have been, there are going to be certainties you will never escape, and many of those are very grim indeed. The setting of Liverpool, a location she loves partly thanks to her relationship with Peter, brought that home even more, particularly as it was at the cusp of the seventies into the eighties and not exactly a great time for the city, potentially rendering a downbeat story even more suffused with dejection. When Gloria decides to stay with Peter's family (including mum Julie Walters, dad Kenneth Cranham, and brother Stephen Graham) as she begins her slide into oblivion, the mundanity of her surroundings is contrasted with her previous existence in sunkissed California which are among those flashbacks (with extended cameos for Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber as mother and sister respectively). The question of whether you wanted to see this depended very much on how far you wished to be reminded of the harsh truths this does little to sweeten: wallow or otherwise, it was well-acted gloom. Music by J. Ralph.