Gloria Grahame might well have been concocted in a lab experiment to create a classic Hollywood star.
That’s assuming the experiment included not only looks and talent but also the haunted arc of a screen goddess: early success, an Oscar (1952 Supporting Actress, “The Bad and the Beautiful”), a string of marriages, struggles with body image, scandal and — after a certain age — a vanishing act.
Watch her movies today, and you can still be amazed at the smart, impudent, altogether new presence she conveys in the noir worlds of “Crossfire” (1947) and “In a Lonely Place” (1950), to say nothing of her disruptive presence as the bad girl of Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). When she surveys Glenn Ford’s room in “The Big Heat” (1953) and says, “Hey, I like this. Early nothing,” you get the feeling she’s brighter and quicker than anybody else in the picture, which makes her subordination to Lee Marvin’s violent gangster seem all the more a tragic waste.
In the 1970s, Grahame was in Britain to do theater and enjoyed an affair with a younger man, Peter Turner. His memoir of the relationship, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” is now a movie and — though entirely sympathetic toward Grahame — it fails to animate whatever was unique about her.
The movie’s dreariness can’t be blamed on the very capable Annette Bening, whose physical resemblance to the actress means it isn’t jarring when the movie shows actual clips of vintage Grahame. (Look at Bening’s 1990 performance in “The Grifters” — she’s already vamping on Gloria Grahame.) Bening is up for the role’s mix of old-pro trouper and needy narcissist, but her performance gets swallowed in the overall grimness.
Peter (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor, meets Grahame in a London boarding house; she’s appearing in a nearby theater. He’s dazzled by her, although at first he only has a fuzzy idea of her now-distant stardom.
She’s happy with the adoration, and doesn’t mind having someone around to pick up the broken things she sometimes leaves in her wake. His parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take an understandably wary view of this unusual relationship, but one of the film’s strong points is the way it expresses the warmth of Peter’s working-class Liverpool homestead.
As for Grahame’s family, we get a single sequence with her disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and resentful sister (Frances Barber); in this case, the formidable actors tell us more about the crushing weight of family expectations than the script does.
The sister cattily mentions the scandal that helped stall Grahame’s career in the 1950s: It was rumored that her husband, “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray, found Gloria in bed with his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage. (She later married the son.)
Was Gloria Grahame that unstable, or was she the victim of a whispering campaign because she wouldn’t play the Hollywood game? The movie can’t and won’t answer that, but director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh are interested in the timely idea of how badly Hollywood treats women, especially when they’re as strong-minded as Gloria Grahame.
A worthy subject, but the film’s take is superficial and it doesn’t result in a deeper understanding of Grahame herself. Nor of Peter Turner, for that matter, who spends the film mostly as an observer, albeit one with a fierce hold on his working-class dignity.
This is a sizable role for Jamie Bell, the tightly-coiled actor who debuted in the title role of “Billy Elliot” in 2000 and remains an under-utilized resource on screen.
Bell exercises his considerable dance chops when Peter and Gloria cut a disco groove to A Taste of Honey’s ineffable “Boogie Oogie Oogie”— a rare bright spot in the sluggish gloom.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2 stars)
Annette Bening plays the faded movie star Gloria Grahame, glimpsed during her decline in the late 1970s, when she takes up with a younger man (Jamie Bell) in England. The lead actors do their best, but it’s hard to cut through the movie’s dreary gloom, and its superficial take on Grahame.
Rated: R, for language, subject matter
Opening: Seattle 10, Pacific Place, Lincoln Square