How Annette Bening brought a fading Hollywood star to lifeby Russell Baillie
Annette Bening’s portrayal of Gloria Grahame is among the best performances of her 30-year screen career.
Her brief moment in the Oscar spotlight can be seen at the end of the acclaimed new movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which is mostly about the last years of Grahame’s life two decades later. It’s centred on her on-off affair with Peter Turner, a jobbing English theatre actor 30 years her junior.
Grahame is played by Annette Bening in a performance that is among the best of her 30-year screen career – a portrayal variously vivacious, sensual, brittle and broken.
The movie’s footnote of the real Grahame winning best supporting actress for The Bad and the Beautiful is a reminder that golden statues don’t always bring lasting happiness or long Hollywood careers.
“Yeah, it was very classy,” says Bening of Grahame’s brief acceptance speech. She’s talking in an era when Oscar thank yous seem to go on for hours and a few days before this year’s ceremony, where her husband, Warren Beatty, returned to announce the best picture winner – correctly, after last year’s blunder.
Speaking from Los Angeles, she laughs at the Listener’s suggestion that it would have been a nice touch if she had done a Grahame herself and her name had been pulled from an envelope. But curiously, and despite much critical acclaim, Liverpool hasn’t figured much during awards season. The best showing for the British-made movie was three Bafta nominations – for her, co-star Jamie Bell, who plays Turner, and its screenplay.
As some consolation, Bening did win best actress at the American Association of Retired Persons “Movies for Grownups” Awards, beating the category’s Oscar winner Frances McDormand and nominee Meryl Streep. But no, the four-time Oscar nominee says she isn’t disappointed by the relatively modest showing of the movie.
“You know, I’ve been through this so many times. There are ups and downs with that. You know, I’m kind of an old veteran of all of that. So I’m not surprised with how things go … I sort of know when something will gain more attention than others. Well, I think I know. And then other times I don’t.
“So I just try to keep my head down and do things that I love and in the long run, that is the important thing. I feel very lucky that I get to do that.”
Maybe the film was always going to be a hard sell. Grahame was a second-tier star, who had a particularly turbulent personal life before the events depicted in the movie. Her four marriages produced four children and subsequent custody battles.
Her second husband was Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray. Her fourth was Ray’s son from an earlier marriage – so briefly her stepson – Tony. The scandal of that final marriage damaged her screen career.
“She had a very complicated life,” says Bening. “It’s just incredible what she lived through and what she decided to do.”
Bening was first approached about the role in the late 90s, by Barbara Broccoli of the film-producing family that has a long association with the Bond movies (Liverpool was shot at 007’s historic home, Pinewood Studios).
Broccoli knew Turner and Grahame when they were together. She bought the rights to Turner’s 1986 memoir, from which the film takes its name.
The project was revived with a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, whose previous biopic scripts include Nowhere Boy, about the Liverpool life of a young John Lennon, and Control, about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.
The project’s long gestation has meant Bening, now 59, was nearer the age Grahame was (57) when she died, of breast cancer, in 1981. She had been cared for in the later stages of her illness by Turner’s Liverpool family, a welcoming bunch who, in the film, are ruled by Julie Walters as Turner’s mum, Bella.
Grahame’s shift to England may have been driven by her desire to keep making a living, but she also harboured an ambition to do Shakespeare on stage. Bening spent a decade on stage doing classical theatre before her screen career. So when Liverpool called for Grahame and Turner to perform a scene from Romeo and Juliet, Bening was on familiar ground. She had performed the role many times during Shakespeare festivals in California in her early days. It was, she says, a nice hall-of-mirrors moment – an actor playing an actor as she performs a role she did back at the beginning of her career.
Bening first became aware of Grahame when making her breakthrough movie, The Grifters, the 1990 film noir homage in which she played a femme fatale con artist. Director Stephen Frears suggested she look at Grahame’s 1950s movies such as In a Lonely Place, Sudden Fear and The Big Heat for inspiration.
Grahame was also a scene-stealer in the hit movie musical Oklahoma! – as Ado Annie, “the girl who can’t say no”, a role which played on the screen allure of her noir films.
“She wasn’t just sexy and she wasn’t just sassy and she wasn’t just innocent and she wasn’t just naive,” says Bening. “There’s this interesting mixture going on with Gloria all the time.”
Some aspects of Grahame’s supposedly old-fashioned films rattled Bening. “I was amazed by the number of times Gloria was hit or slapped. During that time, that was the norm, especially if you are the bad girl, which Gloria was often. Gloria came up in a different time.”
Bening emerged in the 1990s in the likes of American Beauty, but there’s long been something old-Hollywood about her. She effectively married into it when she made an honest man out of legendary Tinseltown Lothario Beatty, 21 years her senior. They married in 1992 after starring in Bugsy together and have four children.
Her most recent Oscar nomination was for 2010 contemporary drama The Kids Are All Right, in which she played the lesbian mother of two teenagers, but Bening has also featured in plenty of films that harked back to earlier eras.
As well as the aforementioned film noir revival, she’s done gangster films (Bugsy), a western (Open Range), retro sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!) and old-fashioned romance (a remake of Love Affair, again with Beatty).
Before Liverpool, she was in another Beatty film, Rules Don’t Apply, in which he played Howard Hughes and she played the worried mother of a starlet courted by the reclusive movie mogul. It tanked quite spectacularly.
It makes you wonder whether the dinner-time conversation at the Beatty-Bening residence is dominated by talk of Hollywood’s good old days.
“Well, you know, he’s got some pretty good stories, because he started out, gosh, 50 years ago. He’s got some great stories about Jack Warner and all the amazing people that he met like [writer] Clifford Odets, John Wayne and a lot of the people that were big movie stars when he was a kid.
“Starting out, he did get to meet them, so he’s got some great stories, I’ll tell you. He really does.”
Those were different times. These days, film stars have to multitask – sell the movie, campaign for Oscars, support a cause, be social-media stars and tabloid fodder.
“Movie stars used to be these huge figures that we saw in the movie theatre. And then once television started, people began to see they couldn’t really protect the stars and their image in the way that they had been able to before.
“So I think it’s a steady progression up to now where privacy is really undervalued and people are actors and people in the public eye are expected to monetise themselves and become entrepreneurs and take ownership over the selling of themselves or what they’re connected to.”
Social media has also allowed the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up campaign, with the calling-out of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bening’s American Beauty co-star Kevin Spacey, among others, for their sexual misconduct. Bening is glad it’s happened.
“I’ve never had anything that overt happen to me. I’ve been in the ballpark, let’s say. But I’ve never been in that position. I was in a place where I could take care of the situation. So no, I didn’t have anything where I was completely overwhelmed.
“It’s great that people are now speaking out. It’s a huge shift and I hope that does continue.”
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is in cinemas now.
This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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