FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
by Jennifer Bryce
This film is based on a book written by Peter Turner who had the extraordinary experience of being the lover of film star Gloria Grahame – 28 years his senior. I must admit that I don’t remember Gloria Grahame in movies; she was at her peak of fame in the 1950s, and I have seen several films she was in: Oklahoma (1955), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) but, for me, her acting wasn’t memorable. This movie focuses on the end of Grahame’s life when, in 1981, she died of peritonitis, the result of breast cancer that she refused to have treated.
I came away from this movie thinking of the abrupt contrasts in Grahame’s life, particularly her fall from the glamour of Hollywood to occasional roles on the stage in her later years (she was 57 when she died). The film opens showing the time when, due to her illness, she doesn’t respond to her stage-call in a performance of The Glass Menagerie in Lancaster.
Rather than a suite in a state-of-the-art hospital, Grahame seeks the care and warmth of Turner’s middle-class family in Liverpool.
Peter Turner’s Liverpool family
We are familiar with the plight of ballet dancers who often can’t continue to work much after their mid-thirties, and, because Grahame’s film roles were dependent on her looks, she seems to have been unable to adjust, as some other actors have done, to cinema acting of more recent years. Vanessa Redgrave who, at 81, plays Grahame’s mother in this movie has very successfully made this adjustment.
Hollywood glamour doesn’t often support substantial, long-lasting marriages. Grahame was married 4 times – not so extraordinary for a film star. But what was remarkable was her final marriage to her step-son (the son of her second husband). Apparently she and the step-son first had sex when he was 13, and she was still married to his father (the marriage ended when the father caught them in bed together). Grahame didn’t marry Peter Turner but clearly, once again, she was attracted to a much younger man.
Gloria Grahame with her third husband
The relationship with Turner is depicted in the movie as, for most of the time, passionate and fun. However, one of the best scenes in the movie concerns a stormy separation that occurred in New York. It is one of the few times that the film plunges below the surface to explore the thoughts and motivations of the characters. Grahame and Turner are staying together in Grahame’s New York apartment. She leaves early one morning and Turner finds a note saying that she is having breakfast with her agent. She ultimately returns, vague and disturbed. After questioning and receiving fiery, violent responses, Turner can only assume that she has been seeing someone else. The fracas ends with him being thrown out of her apartment and he goes back to England. The scene is then re-run from the point of view of Grahame. She had a medical appointment that morning and was told the devastating news that breast cancer had returned, it might even be too late for chemotherapy – which she refused initially because she didn’t want to lose her hair. She doesn’t want people – even Turner – to know that she has cancer and she has the delusion that she can cure herself by eating well. This whole area of denial is a fascinating one – if only it could have been explored further. I assume that the movie keeps faithfully to Turner’s book and, because Grahame wouldn’t talk to him about her illness, he doesn’t know why she very definitely does not want treatment.
In the end, after Turner has tried to keep faithfully to Grahame’s wishes of no medical intervention, he contacts her family because she is so terribly ill. Her son comes immediately from the US to Liverpool. The last Turner sees of the woman who has been central to his life is in a taxi, on a special invalid chair, being whisked away to the airport at 4 am. Apparently she was admitted to a New York hospital but died later that day. By only a matter of hours, she missed dying in Liverpool.
I wish that this film could have explored more deeply the motives and the background to the main characters – but I expect it has remained faithful to what Turner knew. The difficulty of accepting ageing, of no longer being ‘a femme fatale slinking across a black-and-white screen’ is interesting. Maybe Grahame’s attraction to younger men was an attempt to combat this; she was 36 when she married her step-son – maybe old enough to feel that her looks were fading. Grahame apparently hated Ronald Reagan and once said that she would like to stick her Oscar award ‘up his arse’. It would be good to know more about this, but it isn’t mentioned in the movie.
The movie is directed by Paul McGuigan and the acting is excellent: Annette Bening plays Gloria Grahame and Jamie Bell plays Peter Turner – it is worth going to see them.