Despite roles in It’s A Wonderful Life, The Big Heat and Oklahoma!, plus an Oscar on her shelf, Gloria Grahame’s fame hasn’t endured like other stars of her era. She’s more a good answer to a quiz question than a household name these days. Paul McGuigan’s drama is a fond look at the final years of Grahame’s life, telling the sweet tale of a relationship that lit her up long after her star wattage had faded.
In 1981, aged 57, Grahame is eking out the last of her celebrity on the stage. She collapses before a performance, which she explains away as “gas”. Grahame calls former lover Peter Turner, a twentysomething actor in Liverpool, and asks if she can come to recuperate at his family home. The timeline then splits between scenes of Grahame elegantly dying under the care of Peter’s indomitable mother (Julie Walters), and flashbacks to Grahame and Turner’s brief but passionate romance.
The film grows ever more sentimental, but a degree of melodrama is earned from the off. McGuigan gives a sense of low-key glamour to the early scenes. Turner arrives on screen lit by the tiny firework burst of a cigarette flicked against a wall. A standard Liverpudlian terrace is leant some drama by lurid wallpaper and strong light through dusty windows. It heightens the ordinary and provides the right backdrop for an out-of-the-ordinary affair. Grahame and Turner’s fling begins with frantic disco-dancing over cocktails and continues at a similar energy. In just a couple of years together they zip between LA, New York and Liverpool, chasing adventure, clutching onto the honeymoon period.
Though they’ve little in common, they convince as a couple genuinely in love. The age difference is obviously a recurring factor, but it’s not hammered, mainly jabbing to the surface in moments of insecurity for Grahame, who palpably yearns to be young again. They seem so at ease in each other’s presence, at least until the truth of Grahame’s illness begins to encroach, which is significantly down to terrific leads.
It’s a gift of a role for Bening, who gets to play the sashaying film star, so glamorous she even drinks milk from a champagne flute, and treats herself to effectively one long death scene. She doesn’t wring it dry but finds poignant details in a woman whose persona can tend toward the cartoonish. She speaks in a sing-song Marilyn Monroe voice, but it slips when she loses control of herself. It suggests a woman for whom every minute is performance, to others and herself. Bell is her match in a much quieter role.
We can see Grahame’s death coming toward us like a train in a tunnel and McGuigan isn’t entirely subtle when it comes, but a character this big shouldn’t go out quietly. She deserves her moment before the spotlight goes out foreve