Double Feature

In a Lonely Place 

May 19, 2020  


On Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool and The Report


ilm Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) dramatizes the final years of Gloria Grahame, the one-time big movie actress who peaked — and experienced

public controversies from which her career would never fully recover — in the 1950s. Or, more precisely, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool dramatizes what Gloria Grahame might have been like at the end of her life through the eyes of someone much less interesting than her.


The film is based on a memoir by the British theater actor Peter Turner (played in the movie by Jamie Bell), who, as a 26-year-old, started a relationship with Grahame (an emotionally wrought, never imitative Annette Bening) after she relocated to the U.K. in the late 1970s for work.


The movie is founded on their romance, which in itself was at least initially aided by the fact that Turner did not have a full grasp of who Grahame was when he first met her. It’s a little like Simon Curtis’ My Week with

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in 2017's "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in 2017's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

Marilyn (2011), during which we watched a naïve college grad have a fling with a particularly flighty Marilyn Monroe while she shot 1956’s The Prince and the ShowgirlFilm Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool swings to and fro events in 1979, the year during which Turner and Grahame first fell in love and then eventually broke up, and 1981, the year they reconciled after Grahame’s five-years-dormant cancer returned and, by that October, would kill her.


I don’t like biopics very much; I’m generally put off by the inexorable liberty-taking, even if they entertain. I particularly don’t much like biopics in the spirit of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which feel, mutedly, as though they are feeding on the depiction of a once-“great” subject’s fall from grace. (This is something present in last year’s Judy, which, while featuring a bravura turn from Renée Zellweger, felt kind of masochistic.)


There is a worthwhile movie to be made about Gloria Grahame, who still feels like an anomalous talent when you go back and watch her films. She was often thrust in roles that required her to be a narrow “tart with a heart,” like in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Crossfire (1947), Sudden Fear (1952), and Oklahoma (1955). Yet she always transcended the limitations imposed on her. In her best movies, like In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (the latter of which garnered her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, an accolade supplemented by a record-breakingly short acceptance speech), she exquisitely underlined the anxieties of her characters, which she could give an unwritten tangibility. She gave them a richness, a between-the-lines inner life, they didn’t necessarily call for. 


Her personal life was something of a maelstrom. One controversy was particularly defining. When Grahame was married to her second husband, the great director Nicholas Ray, the latter allegedly caught Grahame in bed with his then-teenage son, Anthony, to whom she would subsequently be married for 14 years. (Grahame has long denied the earlier, more scandalous rumor, which is fleetingly invoked in the movie during a tense dinner scene.) Grahame was also one of the first mainstream actresses to conspicuously facially transform in just a few years on account of plastic surgery — something which would also contribute to her career’s wane. 


There is a lot to explore with Grahame. Yet Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool goes for the overbroad when it might have more compellingly examined its subject’s contractions and neuroses. Most of the time, it’s a slogging, by-the-numbers romance. Everything is seen through the eyes of Bell’s moonstruck Turner, who isn’t engaging. (Bell works hard to get us to think the opposite; this is a case of an actor being better than his material.) When the film does attempt to scrutinize Grahame’s inner life, it’s done thinly. It predominantly suggests that the actress unhealthily yearned for her glory days, haunted by her career’s arc. 

There’s an I think hurtful scene in which Bening’s Grahame dances in the mirror, clad in lingerie, with the élan of a young sexpot. The camera is infatuated with her wrinkled skin; aurally, the scene pays close attention to Grahame’s damaged-sounding singing, spasmodically interrupted by sickly coughs. It feels belittling. 


Undoubtedly there is veracity to Grahame feeling self-conscious about the gap between her decades-old image and her new reality, especially given her well-documented insecurities. (This vulnerability is also certainly not exclusive to Grahame.) But the film not only seems to be goading us to be pitying Grahame, as if she were a sad spectacle. It also presents this insecurity as her defining feature — like this is the only detail really worth exploring. 


What Turner experienced is intriguing. But what do we gain, really, from it being dramatized if Grahame is insubstantially portrayed? Biopics are ostensibly made to get closer to the apparent essence of a subject, not contribute to mythologizing or exaggerations of probable truth. The feature’s visual grit and feeling of melancholy are supposed to signify that this is close to what really happen, but it more so to me resembled a dream, a fairly rose-colored memory, had by Turner. One walks away from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool not as much gratified as hankering for a movie in which Grahame is not solely a tragic object, a central but nevertheless not-totally-understood facet of someone else’s formative experience.


he Report (2019), written and directed by Scott Z. Burns (2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, 2011’s Contagion), has the dramatic texture of a Wikipedia entry. It’s about the years-long investigation into the

CIA’s use of torture after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the eventual production of a nearly 7,000-page document comprehensively detailing the agency’s deceit. The lead of the investigation and primary writer of the thick catalogue, Daniel J. Jones, is played in The Report by Adam Driver with a one-track-minded intensity. His determination is the dramatic kindling. The feature is a circular succession of government meetings (often between Jones and his biggest supporter, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is played with stoic authority by Annette Bening) and flashbacks encompassing what presumably went down, in the early aughts, at interrogation sites. The movie is basically all exposition, often filtered out by Bening’s Feinstein, who tends to respond to ardent, didactic claims made by Jones beginning with “so what you’re saying is…” to make sure the audience is caught up.


The Report has two distinct visual languages; both look bad. The investigative sequences are given a whitish, doctor’s-office overwash; the camera is perpetually static, perhaps as a way to drive in the monotony and tedium of the process. The torture flashbacks, in contrast, have a urine-yellow overlay, and are captured with presumably handheld cameras. They have the tenor of a reenactment scene on a low-budget, first-person-account-driven reality TV show in which survivors of terrible things recount their traumas in front of an unfeeling lens. The Report is stylistically clumsy; dramatically, it’s arid. Its characters are figurines with a predilection for monologuing when the timing’s right. The middle act drags badly; it drones on like a few superfluous paragraphs in a way-too-long article cinematized. But The Report’s narrative for the most part has a nice rhythm to it, and the last few minutes have potency. There’s just never a sense that its story has been done much of a service by being reconfigured for the screen.  


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