It’s a particular kind of agony, having to sit by and watch as your own legacy gets slowly and methodically dismantled in front of you. In the early ’50s, Gloria Grahame was a Hollywood titan – a legend etched out of smoke, the frequent cinematic sparring partner of Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart, and a singularly charismatic presence onscreen.

But by the ’80s, all that work had been largely forgotten, relegated to the dustbin of history. Whereas she had once spent her time surrounded by cultural glitterati, winning Oscars and being courted by big name directors, towards the end of Grahame’s life she was a nobody, starring in low-rent plays in Liverpool, and fighting off persistent bouts of breast cancer.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a romance of the most unconventional sort.

That sad decline is charted with varying levels of success in Paul McGuigan’s new movie, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, a romance of the most unconventional sort that sees the one-time starlet played with rancour and relish by Annette Bening. Slumming it in Liverpool, Grahame meets and then aggressively pursues Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a young wannabe actor who seems both besotted with the idea of bedding a legend, and suitably suspicious of Grahame’s tantrums.

If only the film itself were as divided on the subject of Grahame. McGuigan mines all of the tragedy from his spent subject, but has little handling of nuance, and falls at her feet when he would do better to take a step back and examine Grahame earnestly. Her vicious sparring matches; her coldness; the sad, useless ways she fights against the passage of time – McGuigan skips over all of these warts, instead manipulating the audience in preparation for a weepy and one-note finale.

Grahame went through lovers like a wildfire through Californian eucalypts.

In the process, he manages to insult Grahame exactly as he tries to memorialise her. In life, as onscreen, Grahame was uniquely suspicious of sentimentality – a heavy drinker and smoker, she went through lovers like a wildfire through Californian eucalypts. But in Film Stars, she is a Shakespeare-loving softie, whose clear exploitation of a man half her age is depicted as a kind of mettle-testing rite of passage for the young actor.

Not that Film Stars is bad – not by any stretch of the imagination. Bening is perfectly cast, and in the careful, controlled way she portrays Grahame, actively appears to be fighting back against the simplistic script she’s been chained to. Bell too is as charming as ever; a dose of empathy and complexity in a film crying out for it.

No. Film Stars is no mess, but nor is it the masterpiece it could have been. It’s simply one more melancholy footnote in the story of an actress who deserved so much more than she ever got.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is in Australian cinemas from Thursday March 1. To read a review of a film that does its subject justice (the magnificent The Centre Will Not Hold), click here.

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