That’s a clip from “Oklahoma,” with Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie singing “I Can’t Say No.” It’s probably her best-known role, although she was Oscar-nominated for “Crossfire” in 1947 and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful” in 1952.
Now comes a movie about the end of Grahame’s life called “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.” It stars Annette Bening as Grahame in her late fifties when she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer but won’t get treatment. Instead, she goes to England to do a play and meets a young man named Peter who is 30 years younger. They quickly develop chemistry that leads to a love affair, until she’s sick enough to need help and asks Peter to let her move into his parents’ home, where his mother can take care of her.
From there, the timeline zig-zags between the family she shares a home with in Liverpool to her relationship with her own mother and sister, from her home in Malibu to a hotel room in New York. Through it all, the story doesn’t move much beyond her May-December romance, and doesn’t make enough of Grahame’s turbulent life, in which she had four children, was married four times (the last of which was to the son of her second husband), and acted with stars like Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Joan Crawford, and Lee Marvin.
The cast of “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” includes two stars of “Billy Elliot,” with Jamie Bell just fine as the young Englishman Gloria has a relationship with and the always-solid Julie Walters (who I loved in 1983’s “Educating Rita”) as his mother.
But the film belongs to Bening, who gives a gloriously vulnerable performance as Gloria, allowing herself to be seen with wrinkles and without makeup. Bening has said she used Grahame’s on-screen bad-girl reputation in the 1940s as inspiration for her con-woman character in “The Grifters,” so this completes a nice circle for her.
Watching Bening, I couldn’t help but think of the difference in how actresses of a certain age are cast today versus all those years ago. Here’s Bening, approaching sixty, still at the top of her game with lots of regular work and good roles, playing Grahame, a woman who couldn’t get much of anything once she’d reached her late thirties. It’s also interesting to see a movie about a romance between an older woman and a younger man, considering that the overwhelming majority of such relationships on screen have been the other way around.
Unfortunately, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” doesn’t give us much besides a vivid acting lesson from Bening and a lot of morose scenes of Grahame contemplating life in the year or two before her death at 57. I’d have much rather seen a biopic about her career during her heyday.
I give “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” a 5 out of 10.