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Annette Bening talks about playing Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and the life and times of the mercurial and frequently mesmerizing ’40s and ’50s Hollywood star.
Anyone who saw Annette Bening’s turn as Myra Langtry in Stephen Frears’s The Grifters (1990) won’t be surprised by her portrayal of the actress Gloria Grahame in Paul McGuigan’s bracing and poignant Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Slippery, seductive Myra was like a modern composite of Grahame’s key performances as noir anti-heroines in In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and Human Desire (1954).
Based on the discreet but haunting 1986 memoir by Liverpool actor Peter Turner, Film Stars cuts between the beginning and end of his 1978–80 love affair with Grahame and the last week of her life. Grievously ill with stomach cancer and peritonitis, she spent six days at his parents’ Liverpool home before dying at the age of 57 immediately after flying to New York on October 5, 1981. The 28-year age difference between Bening and Jamie Bell, who plays Turner, echoes the 29 years between Turner and Grahame.
Bening sublimely captures both the healthy Grahame—her fluty voice, her jaunty demeanour, her irreverence and unpretentiousness—and the ailing Grahame, who was apparently in denial about her plight. She also portrays her as a woman who had shrugged off the trappings of Hollywood stardom and was more at home with a working-class Liverpool family than the Beverly Hills and Bel Air elite.
Serene in black velvet and specs, Bening talked volubly about Grahame in a recent interview at The Langham hotel in Manhattan.
Culture Trip (CT): It was mooted many years ago that you should play Gloria Grahame in an adaptation of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Had the producer Barbara Broccoli thought of you for it because you’d sort of channeled Gloria when you played Myra in The Grifters?
Annette Bening (AB): I’m not sure. Peter’s book had been published in 1986. I heard him say the other day that it took him a few years after the relationship with Gloria ended for him to write it. He was quite traumatized and he couldn’t sleep. Finally, one morning at 4.30, he said, “O.K., I’ve got to get up,” and he started typing it. I love the book. It’s impressionistic and tasteful, and it cuts seamlessly between the past and the present, which is where the inspiration for the film came.
When Stephen Frears had directed me in The Grifters, he’d told me to watch Gloria’s films, and I become a big Gloria fan at that point. She was the perfect inspiration for Myra, and I’m very grateful to Stephen for that.
It wasn’t too long after that that Barbara and I became friends. She had been close to Peter Turner, and had known him when he was with Gloria. Barbara said, “Annette, I would really like you to do this story”—this was probably 23 years ago. She had a draft of the script. It was certainly too early for me to do it, but I often thought about it. And maybe five or six years ago, I ran into Barbara in the ladies’ room at the BAFTAs, and I said, “Hey Barbara, we should make that movie.” She and Colin Vaines then got together to produce it and hired Matt Greenhalgh to adapt Peter’s book, which was a very important step. Barbara and Colin were an inspiration because of their love of the project.
CT: What for you was the key to finding the essence of Gloria?
AB: There was much, much more that I wanted to find out about her that I couldn’t find out. I was very skeptical about many of the anecdotes that have floated around about her, and I didn’t want to deal with any of that. I only wanted to deal with things that I knew to be factually true. What I ended up coming back to was Peter’s picture of Gloria. It’s not overly specific and there are a lot of details about her life that he didn’t go into. He wasn’t interested in all of that. That’s why the book is so classy, you know? His love for her and her love for him was the essence of it.
I tried to watch as much of her as I could. I watched all of her older movies and then the not-so-great stuff that she did in the ’60s and the ’70s, everything I could find. And then I was able to talk to a number of people who knew her. In fact, I keep running into more people who come out of the woodwork. I was at a screening a couple of weeks ago here in New York and met the actor Dennis Christopher, who was in Blood and Lace  with Gloria—it was a very bad horror movie. Dennis was like, “Oh, Annette, the movie was terrible. But Gloria was so much fun! We went out to lunch together and became friends. She was really a delightful woman.”
I also talked to the [actress] Terry Moore, who knew Gloria and who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award [for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)] at the same time as Gloria, who won it for The Bad and the Beautiful . They worked together on Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope , and Terry also said Gloria was fun to be with and a loyal friend. She told me Gloria was a very private person—she wasn’t one of those people that went around talking about her personal life, which was pretty scandalous.
At the party for the [Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool] screening we did in London I met Gloria’s son, Timothy Ray. I just wanted to be in a corner with him and ask him a million questions, because he was the person I felt must have gone through the most [when Grahame was ill in Liverpool].
CT: It’s frequently written that Gloria was the archetypal film-noir femme fatale, but it’s completely untrue. She played a femme fatale in Human Desire and an evil woman who isn’t a femme fatale in Sudden Fear , but that’s it. Most of her characters are much more complex than merely dangerous, aren’t they?
AB: They really are. She was called a femme fatale, but you’re right—she had a much bigger range than that. My favorite of her films is In a Lonely Place. First of all it’s a great film, directed by Nick Ray, her husband; they were breaking up at the time. She is so disciplined and controlled in that film. The movie is superbly written and superbly taut. She was a great listener, as an actress, and I always find that she’s very alive when she’s not speaking.
CT: It’s interesting that the movie chosen to represent her past in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Naked Alibi  rather than one of the more famous ones. The barroom singer she plays in that film is not the hard-boiled character she seems, but a woman who tries to put a makeshift family together with Sterling Hayden and some kids. It makes me think about Gloria’s attraction to Peter’s family. I can’t help thinking it’s something she wanted—a warm Liverpool family like that.
AB: I think Liverpool is like a character in the story, because from the minute Gloria met Peter, the idea that he was from Liverpool… oh my god, that seemed so exotic to her, you know, getting a ferry across the River Mersey. Peter was the youngest of nine, and I think Gloria was very attracted to the solidity that Peter represented. She had had a lot of tempestuous relationships and a lot of craziness, and so getting to know Peter and his parents and his brothers and sisters meant a lot to her. That they would end up literally taking care of her… none of them expected it.
CT: Do you think Peter’s family was a contrast with Gloria’s own family?
AB: I think that her mom [Jeanne McDougall Hallward, played by Vanessa Redgrave] was a good mom. She was Scottish, a stage mom who taught acting. The dad [Michael Hallward] left when Gloria and her sister Joy [Frances Barber] were children. Joy also was an actress and she and Gloria were close, but they were also very competitive—it’s in the movie.
CT: Joy makes a cruel remark in front of Peter about Gloria’s affair with her stepson Tony Ray when he was 13. Why do you think it was necessary for the film to bring that up?
AB: I guess it was such an unforgettable fact, but we didn’t really dwell on it and a lot of people even miss it in the movie. But it happened and I think it made a big stamp on Gloria. She had been married briefly, very young, before she married Nick Ray. Nick already had a son, Tony. She and Nick had a son, Tim. Then she married Cy Howard and had a daughter, Paulette. Now she’s in her late thirties and Tony Ray is in his early twenties and they form a relationship. Not only that, she marries him and has two sons [Anthony Jr. and James].
CT: Do you think Gloria was impulsive?
AB: Yes, definitely, and that’s what I’ve been told by others as well. She was a person in the moment. She was like, “Wait, who are you? Oh, I don’t know you that well, but what are you doing and where are you going? Let’s go have a good time!”
CT: There’s a story that she once kissed an interviewer on the lips.
AB: I believe it was Francis Wyndham. She told him all the stuff she told Peter in the film, about how she wanted to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and how she wanted to play Juliet. And I think she jumped up at the end and kissed him on the lips.
CT: Gloria was very insecure about her looks. The pressure from Hollywood to stay perpetually young is so intense, and she suffered because of that. I think it affected her for the rest of her life.
AB: I do, too, but I also sense that in the period shown in the film she didn’t take herself that seriously. Things hadn’t gone well professionally for her for a long time, but she was working. She got an offer from a theater in Sheffield, and another one from Watford. I’m sure there were times when she felt, “God, look at me. I was once this Hollywood star and now I’m living in Primrose Hill.” That kind of thing is fashionable these days, but it wasn’t so much in the 1970s and 1980s.
CT: At least she got to do Lady Macbeth.
AB: She also did The Glass Menagerie and Rain [based on Somerset Maugham’s Sadie Thompson story], which is part of the repertoire in Britain. They don’t do it in America—I don’t know why. The story is beautiful; the play’s pretty melodramatic. She did a number of plays.
CT: The film’s masterstroke, for me, is the the twinned sequences in New York, when we see Peter and Gloria’s break up, first through Peter’s eyes and then through Gloria’s eyes. She’s just been told her cancer has returned, but instead of telling Peter about it, she contrives an argument with him and draws on her acting skills to make him leave her rather than make him suffer with her. She makes a huge sacrifice and that struck me as heroic.
AB: That was something that came out of all of us being together for a few weeks before we started filming. Matt, our writer, was there; Paul McGuigan, our director; the producers Barbara and Colin; Jamie Bell and me and all the other actors. We already had a good script but we continued to talk about the book and the story and what we wanted to get out of it.
Sometimes that period of time can yield incredible ideas, because at that point you get into details. Movies, especially good movies, are all about details, and the smallest detail can make a huge difference.
We all felt that, like the book, the movie should be seen from Peter’s point of view. That’s what’s beautiful about it—it’s this guy’s story. But Paul said, “I think, Annette, we need to see this moment from Gloria’s point of view, as well as Peter’s.” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know if that’s the right idea, Paul.” I was a bit nervous about it. But he’s like, “No, no, I’m telling you: at this point we’re going to want to switch perspective.” And suddenly we’re going to see inside of her. And Paul was right. From an acting point of view, it was a great gift. Often, you’ve got secrets going on, but no one ever sees them. Paul decided to let us see Gloria’s secret, that she was making a sacrifice.
CT: And then, of course, she’s drawn back to him and to Liverpool at the end. She was stranded in England and it was natural for her to be with someone she loved and who loved her.
AB: She was about to go on stage in Lancaster and she collapsed. She didn’t know who to call, so she called Peter. The fact that he took her home… yeah, she was so lucky. When we were shooting, I kept thinking about her children, who were back in California. She wasn’t with them and that must have been difficult for her. So you have this very unlikely story of this woman who had been a great movie star ending up on the second floor of a house in Liverpool, spending the last part of her life with this family. It’s just an unbelievable story.
CT: Was making this movie a big emotional journey for you?
AB: It was, absolutely. I tried to give it everything I had. I mean, I don’t talk a lot about my personal life, as you know. I have a lot of privacy. But when I’m working, I feel it’s my job to be as open as I possibly can.
CT: And it took a lot out of you?
AB: Yes, it did. Everyone on the film felt that way about the sequences with Gloria in Liverpool. But I like to think that if you’re working in the right way as an actor, that kind of stuff is cathartic. You go to the dark place, but then it’s over. And in a way it can be kind of cleansing.
CT: You found the woman—not just the movie star—in your performance, and I think that’s what’s so valuable about this film. But I must ask you, did you try to impersonate Gloria raising one eyebrow the way she did?
AB: Ah, every once in a while. [laughs]
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens in the US on December 29. It is currently on release in the UK.