Films about ageing Hollywood actresses are really about the drawn-out demise of the golden age of the studio pictures. Once the mighty driver of narrative, fantasy, and a prescriptive kind of American morality, the ageing Hollywood actress reveals that the softly-lit, chrome-plated glamorous world of Hollywood is just a picture; behind the scenes there are vicious struggles to stay young, beautiful, relevant, and adored by both fans and producers. And what happens when the picture is over? What role do you play? If you are Norma Desmond, you cocoon yourself in your Hollywood-money mansion and prepare yourself for a (highly unlikely) role as Salome. If you are Margo Channing, you play the triple threat of mentor, agent, and fixer, cunningly paving the way for even bigger roles while seemingly giving up the meaty roles to your understudy. If you are Baby Jane Hudson, you play the part of evil sister and tormentor.
It has been observed, quite often, that there are very few good roles for Hollywood actresses of a certain age, and whether we take the fictional or real actresses, this observation holds. A notable exception is Annette Bening, who plays the wonderful stage and studio actress Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Her most recent roles (Ms. Bening is 59) have included Julia in Being Julia, Nic in The Kids Are All Right, and, in the remake of The Women, Sylvie Fowler, who was played by the the equally unconventional Rosalind Russell in the 1939 original version. Ms. Bening is a talented and appealing actress with ha timeless versatility, that enables her to play diverse roles such as the Marquise the Mertueil, a successful (lesbian) doctor, and an aging film star of Hollywood’s studio years.
And, as played out in this particular version of the story of Ms. Grahame’s final years, the role she plays is not of an embittered Baby Jane or a jealous Norma Desmond, but simply, of a working actress who still has to make a living, despite her age. Yes, she is a mother to her children, a devoted and affectionate daughter to her actress mother, and a frustrated sister to a less successful actress sister. But, she is also an experienced, warm, funny, and world-wise lover to the much younger Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an English actor who became her companion in her last years. In the allure and the powerful eroticism of their May-December romance, she represents a vanished, glamorous, put-together world of bi-coastal living, tokens from Humphrey Bogart, and cocktails in the early afternoon. He represents youth, modernity, progressiveness, and a working-class work ethic which drives him toward the stage. Critically, for her, his warm, working-class Liverpool family of non-actors presents a much more appealing nest in her last days, having lived and worked with theater and film people all her life.
And this role of older (and still tragic) Juliet suits her well. Knowing her life to be as fragile as celluloid, she gives herself to the pleasures of young love. She has paid her dues, won her awards, brought her children to adulthood, and played the leading lady. This role of herself, wrinkles and all, is entirely of her own making. Even Hollywood can’t improve on this story.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, dir. Paul McGuigan, 106 mins. Eon Productions, IM Global, et al., 2017.