LONDON—Occasionally, not only men are disgraced in Hollywood. Gloria Grahame, for example, scandalized the movie business by seducing her 13-year-old stepson by her marriage to the director Nicholas Ray. Hollywood purported to be shocked, shocked! They didn’t like carnality of that power in a woman. The rules were and remain different for men and sexual hypocrisy still runs deep.
Graham’s real life was often as wanton as the roles she played as the greatest of the 1950s film noir sirens. When she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1952 (for The Bad and The Beautiful) she sashayed up to the podium, took the Oscar, said “thank you” and walked right off—a brilliant piece of cheeky theater that seemed true to character.
But by the 1970s her career had gone into a long slide, though she was still working.
In 1979 she was appearing in a London theater production of The Glass Menagerie. But she did not live like the star she had been with a suite in the Savoy—she had a room in a humble theatrical boarding house. And it was there that her eyes fell upon another resident, Peter Turner, who was working as a repertory actor. He was 28, she was 55.
Out of what could have been just a fleeting bout of physical passion grew an extraordinary love affair. Turner found Grahame mesmerizing and yet vulnerable; she found a caring partner she badly needed. Of course, the age difference shocked some people in a way that revived gossip about the original 1951 scandal—even though her eventual marriage to Ray’s son Tony was the most enduring of her four marriages, from 1960 until 1974.
Grahame and Turner, mutually infatuated, didn’t give a damn about what anyone might think. But there was a ticking clock: Grahame had beaten an earlier brush with breast cancer but now she was suffering the early stages of stomach cancer, as yet undiagnosed.
Among the people who met the lovers in the first flush of the affair was Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. The Broccoli family were major players in the British movie industry through their control of the James Bond franchise. The Sunset Boulevard vibrations of Grahame’s fling with Turner were not lost on Barbara Broccoli but at that moment the dramatic possibilities of their story remained unrealized. In any case, its tragic story arc was incomplete and its deeper context as yet unknown.
The deeper context was Liverpool. This once great port city persisted not just as a city but a distinctive and rough-hewn culture with its own accent, scouse, as spoken by scousers—a word derived from a cheap stew once a staple of seafarers. In the late 1970s, after decades of hard times, Liverpool was a hotbed of far left politics and remained an outlier, more polyglot than any other city outside London. Its voice and grit sit indelibly in the language of its most famous sons, The Beatles.
Grahame fell all the way from Hollywood into this far off milieu like a comet in its last, weak orbit when Turner took her home to his working class family.
The family happened to be run like a matriarchy: Turner’s redoubtable mother Bella was, like Grahame, a force of nature. She was also a practicing Catholic but the two women of such different backgrounds bonded easily—Bella was shrewd enough to sense that Grahame was being kept whole only by believing in little more than her own allure—sustained by her son’s adoration.
Then, in a flight of reverse culture shock, Grahame took Turner to California, to her idyllically sited trailer in Santa Monica in a park overlooking the ocean, and then to New York where everyone from her building’s doormen to the cab drivers still treated her as royalty. It was in New York that her doctors told her that the cancer had returned, aggressively, this time to her stomach. She refused to accept the diagnosis and, retreating into a delusional bubble, discarded Turner without telling him the truth.
Turner thought she had reverted to type, the heartless vamp tired of the fling and dumping him. He was hurt. He returned to Liverpool where, as a member of the repertory at the Liverpool Playhouse he was beginning to make a career for himself.
Grahame also returned to Britain, without making contact with Turner, and resumed working in the theater in other northern cities, as though finding comfort in obscurity. She explained bouts of pain by saying that she had a digestive problem that, she believed, would be cured by taking natural remedies.
One night in 1981 she reached breaking point and could not perform. She asked the theater manager to find Turner, tell him she was ill and wanted to come to Liverpool to recuperate. Still unaware of how seriously ill she was, Turner agreed and Grahame was given a bedroom and 24-hour family care.
Of course, the deception could not last. Turner contacted the last doctor to have treated her and was stunned to comprehend that she had very little time left to live. He contacted her family in America and one of her sons flew to Liverpool. Early in October 1981, she was flown to New York and, within hours of being admitted to hospital, died at the age of 57.
Turner told this story in a sensitive memoir, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, published in 1986. The film rights bounced from producer to producer without issue until they were picked up by Barbara Broccoli. It was the kind of intense, focused drama that Broccoli wanted to make to prove her chops as an independent producer outside of the blockbuster business.
What followed is not unusual in the movie business when a story can sometimes linger years waiting for an alignment of the stars. Eventually Colin Vaines, another British producer, who had always wanted to make the film, agreed with Broccoli that Annette Bening was the obvious choice to take the role and so, in 2016, the two of them finally made the movie happen, albeit with a very tight budget.
The result is that Bening, who has been nominated four times for Oscars and eight times for a Golden Globe award, is once more back as a serious contender. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has just been one of the biggest hits of the London Film Festival and is surely the most improbable love story of the year. Grahame, in Bening’s hands, breaks free of the tabloid-fed stigma of the scandal in a daring way, suggesting not a predator but a libertine unrestrained by humbug.
It’s a brave performance that has a message beyond the role as written—about the right of actresses to age as gracefully as actors. Like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, Bening has been able to fearlessly carry pictures as the lead as she passes into middle age without avoiding close-ups or resorting to misted lenses. Sadly, of course, this was a career arc that Grahame never enjoyed.
In the movie Grahame’s conquest of Turner is swift. The seduction becomes inevitable in one deftly choreographed scene. She invites Turner into her room in the boarding house and through her stereo plays a piece of classic disco, unfolding as partly a frenetic parody of Saturday Night Fever. Bening’s partner as Turner is Jamie Bell, reminding us of his breakthrough performance as a dancer in Billy Elliot but now matured as exactly the kind of actor the role needed.
Grahame, in her run as the unsurpassed vamp of noir, was partnered with a string of the male masters of the genre, including Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden and Robert Mitchum. She never gave an inch in toughness while remaining irresistibly lubricious. Nobody else quite managed that trick. Bening picks up on this: the disco gavotte presages what was for Grahame and Turner an intensely physical affair. In the course of it, Bening conveys the sense that for women sexual physicality does not diminish with age any more than it does for men.
The pathos of Grahame’s last years is that her glamour is no longer supported by a studio’s star preservation machinery, the agents, the flacks, the caring producers. All that is long gone. Indeed, the film opens with an extended and unforgiving close-up of Grahame at work on her face in the mirror in the dressing room of a dowdy provincial theater. The truth stares back from the mirror, beauty wasting away. And yet it does not break her.
Liverpool provides the final hiding place—in the Turner home the kitchen has the warmth of a womb, with Julie Walters as the ministering Bella. She was the flinty ballet teacher who mentored Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot and now, as his mother, is his worldly wise advisor on a romantic train wreck.
But over and above the intimate narrative is the enveloping presence of Liverpool, a city that is by instinct far more magnanimous than Hollywood. If the movie is to be believed, it gave Grahame one valedictory embrace that cuts to the soul.
It seems ludicrous, on the face of it, that the role that Grahame coveted above all others that she never got to play was Shakespearean: as Juliet. And so Turner takes her, already infirm, to the magnificent Liverpool Playhouse where two closely placed stools await them on an otherwise bare stage in an empty auditorium. In a weak but clear voice Grahame reads her lines from Romeo and Juliet to Turner’s Romeo.
When I saw the film at a press preview among a bunch of bad-ass critics there was hardly a dry eye in the house. In a sense Gloria Grahame did die in Liverpool, in a whisper living the part from the greatest love story ever written. Amen to her.