“Soon to be a major motion picture.” From its publication in 1986, that was what British actor-writer Peter Turner expected of his Gloria Grahame memoir “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” But it took three decades for the May-December romance starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell to finally hit theaters December 29.
This could have been yet another film that never got made. But James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli knew Turner back when the young actor was in love with Grahame, his fellow lodger twice his age at a Primrose Hill rooming house. “I’ve known Peter Turner for 40 years,” said Broccoli. “I met him and Gloria together. It was a special relationship. Sometime after she passed away he wrote the memoir, and gave me the manuscript. I thought it was so beautiful.”
Columbia Pictures chairman David Puttnam optioned the book shortly after its publication, but the project went into turnaround after he left the studio in 1987. Others tried to make it, from Joan Collins, Madonna, and Barbara Hershey to Liverpudlians Ian Hart and David Morrissey.
“It was a deceptively simple book that proved to be difficult to adapt,” said Turner. “We never got the right script, but I was able to hold on to the rights.” In 1995, he offered it to Broccoli — who brought it to her friend Annette Bening.
Stephen Frears introduced Bening to Gloria Grahame movies when they were shooting “The Grifters.” A few years later she read Turner’s book, and found herself struck by what happened between Turner and Grahame, who fell in love when Grahame was in remission from cancer and reconnected when she came to spend the last days of her life at his family’s home in Liverpool.
“It was so shocking and wrenching,” Bening said. “Even though he had never written before, he didn’t know what to do with that experience and sat down and the book poured out of him. It’s this distillation as he’s trying to make sense of it in some way.”
“Over the years, we’d talk about it,” said Broccoli. “A couple of years ago she said, ‘I’m ready, let’s do it!'”
A new draft from screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh put the project back on track with producer Colin Vaines and director Paul McGuigan, who figured out a way to transition between the present and the two characters’ memories of the past. IM Global’s Liverpool-born Stuart Ford raised overseas financing. (The under-$10 million film could have used a bigger budget, as the director and Polish cinematographer Ula Pontikos relied on fake-looking rear-projection to stand in for New York and Malibu.)
For Broccoli, the pressure of making low-budget “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is the same as a huge Bond installment. “When you care, the pressure is self-inflicted,” she said. “The pressures on [Bond] are similar to the pressures on this: You are all desperately trying to make it right, baring your souls, doing it together.”
Grahame won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1952 for nine minutes of screen time in MGM’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” but the A-list eluded her. Her roles skewed toward blowzy beauties, women who were sexy but essentially tarnished. And over the course of her career, she developed a scandalous Hollywood persona that became larger than her work.
The day after she divorced actor Stanley Clements, she married her “In a Lonely Place” director Nicolas Ray and had two children. That came to an end after Ray found Tony — his 13-year-old son by his previous wife, Jean Evans — in bed with Grahame. She then had a brief marriage with TV writer-producer Cy Howard, which produced a daughter. A few years later, she reconnected with Tony when he was 23 and she was 37; they married and had two children. (Said Bening: “Imagine how people responded to that!”)
Bening tried to find a place of understanding the answers for the Hollywood star, exploring “the ins and outs of her emotional choices, why she chose to do what she did,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of material about her; a lot of it was sensational. I had to trust Peter’s story and his point of view.”
However, Bening also saw her as a woman who was ahead of her time. “She did what she wanted,” she said. “That was really unusual at that time, and is unusual now.”
When Grahame met Turner in in 1978, she was 55 and in remission from breast cancer; he was a 26-year-old aspiring actor. “After her turbulent relationships with powerful, successful filmmakers,” said Bell, “what she saw in Peter Turner was someone who was a lover, not judgmental of her, who loved her for who she was.”
The film’s best shot at an Oscar nomination may stem from a moment of serendipity. Broccoli and Turner went to see Elvis Costello in London on his recent tour, where he projected a photo of Grahame onstage. They signed up the Grahame fan to write a song for the closing credits, and Costello more than delivered. “You Shouldn’t Look at Me that Way” is a poignant song written from the perspective of an older woman who is regarded with desire, and composer J. Ralph wove Costello’s melody and orchestration into the soundtrack.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”
Some of the film’s highlights are eccentric pleasures, like a “Saturday Night Fever” disco seduction between Bening and Bell, who dances on screen for the first time since “Billy Elliott” 17 years ago. “I could have done many more takes,” Bening said. “So much of the film was so heavy, I felt intuitively that so much would get said without having to say it.” Bening and Bell also got the chance to shoot a scene with Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s mother; the 80-year-old actress did it on a day off from eight shows a week performing “Richard II” opposite Ralph Fiennes.
Grahame also loved Shakespeare, and in one of the movie’s most moving scenes, Turner brings the deteriorating actress to an empty stage to perform a love scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Bell was nonplussed when Bening improvised dialogue from the play that he didn’t know — but it works for the scene. “She picked up on the vulnerability and fragility she had,” said Bell, “coming apart at the edges.”
As the movie hits theaters, Bening is 59, two years older than Grahame when she died from complications of recurring breast cancer in 1981. “[Bening] was very brave,” said Broccoli. “The camera is up close when she’s sick and dying. There’s no vanity with her at all. She’s very comfortable with who she is. You can be a woman in your 50s and still be beautiful and sexual and feel like a person. You don’t have to shut the door. It felt wonderful making a movie about really good normal people doing good things.”