Here’s a film in which excellent actors play fascinating people in interesting situations that somehow, in their adaptation from real life to memoir (by Peter Turner) to screenplay to movie have lost what’s fascinating/interesting about them. The finely realized Annette Bening performance at the center of Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool doesn’t power the movie. McGuigan stages this anguished romance between the troubled, aging actress Gloria Grahame and her under-30 pick-me-up hunk Turner (Jamie Bell) as if that thumbnail description is all you need to know. Every scene of their coupling seems crafted to make the simplest of points: That Grahame is deluded and insecure about her age; that Turner, an actor himself, sees an affair with her as some sort of opportunity; that actors, in real life, act out the selves they wish they were.
For all that, both leads summon full characters out of the sketches they’ve been given. Bening adopts a fluttery unreliability, making Grahame’s small lies into piercing tragicomedy. Bell’s young man on the make seems torn between love and opportunism, though the screenplay avoids such complexity.
In the real world, as here, Grahame — winner of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1953’s The Bad and the Beautiful — fell out of her Hollywood success with the death of black-and-white film. The raw facts of her life afterward proved darker than the shadows her movie characters inhabited: an affair with her 13-year-old stepson; electroshock treatment; facing cancer in a bedroom at her much younger boyfriend’s parents’ council flat in Liverpool. So it’s baffling that this Grahame seems so generic.