Nominated for three Bafta Awards – for the lead performances of Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, as well as the adapted screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is now showing in South Africa. The US-British movie centres on the memoirs of Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner and his relationship with former leading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame. BILLY SUTER reports
IN LATE September 1981 Peter Turner received a phone call that would change his life forever. His former lover, Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, had collapsed in a Lancaster hotel.
She had refused medical attention and instead reached out to Turner, who at Grahame’s request took her to his warm if chaotic family home in Liverpool, it is reported in production notes for the film, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
The pair had met a few years previously, their paths crossing in a Primrose Hill guesthouse in which they were lodging. Turner was an aspiring actor, Grahame a fading star.
She had made her name in the Hollywood studio system, often playing the moll, the floozy or, as Turner notes in his memoir, ‘the tart with the heart,’ appearing in a string of film noirs. These included the likes of the sad and hauntingly romantic In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart (shot by her husband at the time, Nicholas Ray) and the Fritz Lang classic, The Big Heat, opposite Lee Marvin.
Gloria shone in the likes of Crossfire, for which she was Oscar nominated, Naked Alibi and Sudden Fear, while her turn in The Bad and The Beautiful scooped her an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress.
She brought humour to the role of Ado Annie Carnes, the girl who ‘can’t say no’, in the film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and added plenty of vim to the part of the elephant girl in Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. She also featured as Violet in the Christmas-time favourite It’s A Wonderful Life.
And yet she fell on hard times and in her 50s ended up working in smaller-scale theatre productions in the UK. She was, as her landlady notes in the script for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, ‘a big name in black and white films. Not doing too well in colour.’
When Turner met her in his late 20s, he had no idea who she was. And yet these like-minded souls struck up a friendship, which then blossomed into a full-blown romance, it is explained in production notes for the new film.
A move to New York followed, although their relationship did not last, collapsing under the weight of the couple’s insecurities and Grahame’s second diagnosis with cancer, a fact she kept hidden from Turner.
It was only in the wake of her collapse in Lancaster on that fateful day in 1981 that Turner learned the full extent of her health problems. Although their relationship had failed, their friendship endured and it was to Turner she turned in her hour of need.
In 1986, Turner published his memoir, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which recounted his tale of love and loss with the former Hollywood star. It is an affectionate, moving and wry recollection of this unlikely story.
And now, more than 30 years on, it is on the big screen with Annette Bening starring as Gloria Grahame and Jamie Bell as Peter Turner. Julie Walters is also among the cast of a film which, curiously, has virtually been ignored by Hollywood.
The driving forces behind the screen adaptation are producers Colin Vaines and Barbara Broccoli. Broccoli had for a long time harboured ambitions to bring the Turner- Grahame story to the big screen.
“I have wanted to make this film for over 20 years,” Broccoli says in production notes. “It is very meaningful to me. I knew Gloria and Peter when they were together.”
Broccoli got to know Turner when he was working on a series called Spearhead, alongside her boyfriend at the time: “I then met Gloria several times. She was such an extraordinary actress and such a lovely person. There was something captivating about her.
“Obviously, when Gloria died, it was devastating and Peter was bereft,” Broccoli continues. “But then quite some time later he showed us this manuscript and said that he had sent it off to a publisher. It was such a moving, simple, beautiful memoir.”
It was published by Pan Macmillan in the UK, Picador in US, and it received a positive reception.
“Peter and I talked about making a film version and though it has taken a long time, we are finally here.”
“I thought it was a really fantastic story and a completely unique book,” Vaines says. “I’d never read anything quite like it. It was a really unusual love story between two people from two entirely different worlds, and it was about the enduring power of love.”
Vaines could also see that audiences would readily connect with the character of Peter Turner.
“For most people he’s an ordinary bloke and he’s trying to make a living. He’s doing okay, but something special happens to him and that can happen to people in all sorts of ways when you fall in love with somebody. And it just so happened that he met an extraordinary woman, who, as it turned out, had been a great Hollywood actress in the ’40s and ’50s.”
About eight years ago, Vaines revisited Turner’s book and says he was still struck by its potency. He saw that the rights were with Broccoli and asked her if she’d like to collaborate on the project, working with a young screenwriter called Matt Greenhalgh, who had penned the screenplays for Control and Nowhere Boy.
“There was something about Matt’s writing that I responded to,” adds Vaines, “and I thought that he had exactly the right qualities for getting the story of Peter Turner.
“I knew he would understand both aspects of it – the world of the working class boy and also the world that she came from. So I asked Barbara if she was interested in working on this together, and I suggested Matt as the writer.”
Broccoli loved the idea. She says Greenhalgh did a great job with the screenplay and she and Vaines were delighted Paul McGuigan wanted to direct.
Vaines explains: “Both Barbara and I felt that Paul brings this great visual quality to film-making but that he also has this great connection with the actors, and he really got the script.”
Broccoli concurs. “I had wanted to work with Paul for many years and getting him on board was a catalyst to getting the film made.”
Leading lady Annette Bening has long harboured ambitions to play Gloria Grahame in this story. In fact, she and Broccoli had first spoken about the role more than 20 years ago. Bening, however, would have been too young to play the part at that time.
“Annette has always been the only person I would want to play this role,” says Broccoli. She is such a great actress but also she really connects with the character in a profound way.
“She was really enamoured with Gloria and the complexities of Gloria as a screen goddess and also as a person. This isn’t a biography. It is so much more. Annette and I waited for the right time and that time was now.”
Vaines says that Bening’s performance is exceptional. “Annette is extraordinary in the film,” he says, “and there’s an element where she goes beyond acting to inhabiting.”
For four-time Oscar-nominee Bening, the long wait between her first conversations with Broccoli and the film going into production has been a real boon.
“The fact that Barbara and I talked about it many, many years ago enriches the part,” the actress says, in production notes, “because even if you are not sitting around thinking about it every day it goes into your unconscious and it percolates. It certainly did with me.
“The whole nature of the story and the unique, eccentric relationship that they had and what it meant to them, and then how Peter wrote about it – that always stayed with me.”
Bening’s fascination with Grahame began when she was making the 1990 film The Grifters with director Stephen Frears.
“When I was working on that film, Stephen mentioned her to me and he said, ‘Hey, you might want to have a look at her movies. The Grifters was a noir-esque movie and so it made sense to look at film noir anyway and the women of that period and the way that they were portrayed. Gloria, of course, holds a special place in that period.
“She had a really interesting presence on screen and she was a good listener. When you watch her you feel like there’s an inner life going on and that is what is compelling about her.”
The filmmakers chose Jamie Bell, who rose to fame as a boy, playing the name role in Billy Eilliot, to portray Turner.
“He is very truthful and that is the key thing. It was very important to Paul McGuigan to see all the actors giving very real and truthful performances – that is what delivers the emotional impact.” continues Broccoli.
“I have been brought to tears many times and I’ve been laughing as well. There’s a lot of romance and glamour and love but there is also a lot of raw emotion, and Jamie’s performance is just terrific.”
McGuigan agrees with his producer. “Everyone comes out of the screenings of this film and says that Jamie Bell is amazing.”
It is the nuance that Bell brings to his performance that dazzles. “He is one of those actors that you can put your camera on and he doesn’t have to say anything yet he says everything,” adds McGuigan.