Annette Bening first fell in love with film noir icon Gloria Grahame when director Stephen Frears suggested she use Grahame as inspiration for con woman Myra in “The Grifters” (1990), the role that earned Bening her first Oscar nomination.
A few years later, Bening discovered that Barbara Broccoli, best known as a producer of James Bond movies, wanted to make a film based on her friend Peter Turner’s 1988 memoir, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” The book told the story of Turner’s romantic friendship with Grahame in the years before she died of cancer in 1981, when she was just 57.
“We talked about making the film 23 years ago [in 1994], but it was too soon. I was too young,” says Bening in a phone interview from New York. “So the years go by and Barbara and I ran into each other at the BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] awards in the ladies room in our evening gowns and I said to her, ‘Hey, we should make that movie.’ ”
In “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” opening here on Feb. 2, Bening portrays Grahame not as a faded film star in the Norma Desmond mold but as a young-at-heart woman who lives fully in the present. The film begins in 1978 as the 55-year-old Grahame is starring in “Rain” on the London stage (“Gloria, God bless her, was a little old for ‘Rain’ at that point,” says Bening) and living in a boarding house where she meets fellow resident Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a 26-year-old aspiring actor. They become friends, then fall in love. Grahame had battled breast cancer years before; when the cancer returns, she asks Turner if she can stay with him and his parents (Kenneth Cranham and Julie Walters) at their home in Liverpool.
“I did not want it to be sentimental; I was worried about that,” says Bening, who at 59 is still winless after four Oscar nominations. “Gloria was ill and I certainly felt a responsibility to try to get that right but she also had a great sense of fun. She was tough and she had grit. She also had a fragility and a vulnerability. I just love how she didn’t take herself too seriously. She had won an Academy Award [for ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in 1952]; she’d had a big movie career but when things weren’t going well and she couldn’t find work . . . she went back to acting classes with Stella Adler. She really believed in the craft and took it seriously and I love that about her.”
Grahame is known for “bad girl” roles in films such as Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953) and “Human Desire” (1954). One of her signature films, “In a Lonely Place” (1950) costarring Humphrey Bogart, was directed by Grahame’s second husband, Nicholas Ray. Bening says it is her favorite of Grahame’s films; she recently hosted a screening of “In a Lonely Place” on TCM with film noir expert Eddie Muller.
But the genre conventions of noir often dictated that “bad girls” had to be punished. “[Grahame’s characters] got smacked, slapped, hit, or beat up, says Bening. “It was so commonplace in those films; it is shocking, actually, to look at that now in our modern sensibility. It’s horrifying, but at the time it was considered normal and what you did to a woman [who] was acting out.”
By her late career, as depicted in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Grahame had largely shed the trappings of her Hollywood persona. In much of the film, Bening appears without makeup, often in close-up, dressed in jeans and sweaters.
“Annette said to me early on, ‘I don’t want this to be about an old lady dying in a room,’ ” says director Paul McGuigan (“Lucky Number Slevin” and “Victor Frankenstein”). “Annette wanted to bring the real person to life. She injects all these characterizations onto Gloria so that when you get to the end, you’ve seen her as a person. She was so smart in that way.”
Many of the film’s later scenes take place in the modest Turner house that Grahame moves into once she falls ill. There was decency and comfort in that large, working-class family, says McGuigan, who’s from Scotland. It proved attractive to the star.
“I’m from the working class. That kitchen is all our kitchens,” he says, referring to members of the cast and crew. “The film has two love stories. Obviously there’s Peter and Gloria. But there’s also the love between family and the love they gave to Gloria. In tight-knit families, if you bring someone in that you love, they love her as much, unconditionally. To get it right, you need people who understand that.”
Bening says the film allowed her to fall in love with Grahame all over again and to “find all those sides to her: the rage, the irrationality, and also the fun and the joie de vivre. She had four children; she loved her kids and she was connected to them but she also loved her craft. She stuck with her craft beyond other people knowing who she was. It was an anchor for her, just like it is for a lot of us.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.