I’ll be the first to admit, not a big fan of Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”). I want to clear the air so I can say, without hesitation, this might be the project of hers that turns me into a fan. There are a couple of factors that make the ridiculously titled “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” a unique and special experience. First, it’s nice to see a director like Paul McGuigan (“Victor Frankenstein,” “Wicker Park”) matched with a project that clearly suits his sensibilities, instead of just handling “for hire” projects. Another, and more important aspect, is the unconventional relationship between a seasoned actress and a younger man. What could have been ridiculous looking on screen, not only works, but completely sweeps the audience into the notion that love is love. A theme running throughout this year’s Oscar contenders “Shape of Water” and “Call Me By Your Name.” While this is, for all intents and purposes, another campaign vehicle to get Bening that Oscar, it’s Jamie Bell (“6 Days”) who steals the show.
The first time Liverpool stage actor Peter Turner (Bell) meets black and white Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Bening), is in her hotel room. They disco dance themselves into a sweat, agreeing to do it again sometime. “Always playing the tart,” she’s classified by those who remember her movie day. Despite winning an Academy Award, Grahame hasn’t fared too well after the fall of black and white pictures. The two begin a relationship that’s as rocky as her four previous marriages, but Peter is completely infatuated with her. So is his mother (Walters), who not only approves, but becomes friends with Gloria. “I think I am just a boy who can’t say no,” he says.
While it might not seem a stretch for a movie star to play a movie star, Bening is playing against personality type. Speaking with a child-like voice and causing drama in every situation, the way she’s portrayed in Turner’s memoir. Bening checks all the boxes best actress nominees typically require; singing, dancing, emotional outbursts, nudity and cancer. “I’m just the strong silent type,” Turner admits, excusing his lack of emotions on the train. Since bursting on the scene in “Billy Elliot” as a child, the British actor has been universally miscast in projects for too long. Seventeen years since Bell and Julie Walters were on screen together, it’s his time to shine again, landing a role playing to his strengths. He does portray the silent type, but his face and enormous eyes reveal everything his character is experiencing. Jamie Bell will break your heart in this movie, just be warned. While the two didn’t make it to the Academy Award nominations, both were recognized by the BAFTA awards (Britain’s equivalent to the Oscars) in acting.
The editing is very mindful of pace, as the flashbacks detail their relationship, leading up to more dire and serious circumstances. One of the most beautiful sequences in the film occurs when Peter visits Gloria’s surprising Los Angeles residence. Glamping on the shores of Malibu. It’s a beautiful sight watching someone love someone else. We get the relationship through both perspectives at different points in the film. One sequence in particular, replays from the alternate perspective, revealing the ole “love-through-heartbreak” concept. This romance wouldn’t work as a fiction, which allows the filmmakers to exploit Hollywood clichés. I’m unsure if this film will play for everyone, it’s equal parts familiar and unique. One thing is for sure, it’s uncanny how Bening and Grahame look so much alike.
Final Thought — A Hollywood love story for the ages. Bening is at her best while Bell gives the performance of his career.