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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening puts on brave, moving performance

Annette Bening plays a fading screen siren and

Annette Bening plays a fading screen siren and Jamie Bell is her much-younger lover in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

PLOT In the last years of her life, an Oscar-winning actress falls for a much younger man.

CAST Annette Bening, Jamie Bell

RATED R (sexuality and language)

LENGTH 1:45

PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas and Stony Brook 17

BOTTOM LINE Worth seeing for Bening’s brave and touching performance as an actress past her prime.

Before watching Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” it helps to know a bit about its heroine, Gloria Grahame. A Los Angeles native who became a sexy screen presence during the 1940s and ’50s, Grahame won a supporting actress Oscar for playing a sultry Southern belle in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), though most movie fans will remember her as Violet Bick, the head-turning, car-stopping blonde in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She’s the one who tempts Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey but, of course, never gets him.

As often happens in the movies, people seem to be playing themselves. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” takes place mostly during the 1980s, when Grahame, played by Annette Benning, had aged out of the film business, split from four husbands and become a traveling stage actress trading on what fame and beauty she still had. While performing in London, she ends up in the same rooming house as budding actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). She is 54 and he is 26, too young to know who she was — but Peter actually seems interested in who she is. After joining Grahame for an impromptu disco dance in her living room (to Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie”), Peter is smitten, and an unlikely romance begins.

Written by Matt Greenhalgh from Turner’s memoir, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” tells the story of this short-lived love with great sensitivity and respect. It isn’t torridly sexual, nor is it scandalous (though we learn that Grahame married her former stepson, Anthony Ray, after divorcing his father, filmmaker Nicholas Ray). Mostly, the movie is tender and rueful, with a brave and moving performance from Bening — roughly the same age Grahame was at the time — as a washed-up screen siren unwilling to give up her silly-girl voice and saucy sexuality.

If the movie falls just short of being a bona fide weeper, it’s because of Peter, a somewhat passive character who never quite comes into focus. Bening, however, by turns charming, cringe-worthy and heartbreaking, is nothing short of marvelous. The film includes a clip of Grahame’s poignantly short Oscar speech (“Thank you very much”) as a reminder of how fleeting fame and happiness can be.

SOME GOLDEN GRAHAME ROLES

It takes a great actress to play a great actress, and Annette Bening is up for the task as ’50s screen siren Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” If you want to see the real Grahame in action, these films are a good starting point.

IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) Grahame’s second husband, Nicholas Ray, directed this Tinseltown drama about a screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) suspected of murder. Grahame played his girlfriend, whose belief that he’s innocent becomes shaken after his increasingly violent outbursts.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) Even though she has only nine minutes’ screen time, Grahame won an Oscar as the coquettish wife of a screenwriter (Dick Powell). She gets seduced by Hollywood and a Latin heartthrob (Gilbert Roland).

THE BIG HEAT (1953) In this Fritz Lang crime drama, Grahame had one of her meatiest roles (originally intended for Marilyn Monroe) as the girlfriend of a vicious thug (Lee Marvin). She learns the hard way that coffee can be bad for you.

OKLAHOMA! (1955) Though not known as either a comic or a singer, Grahame — in the role of Ado Annie — delivered a humorous rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” that was worth the price of admission.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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