If ever a film typified the difference between the BAFTAs and the Oscars, Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool could well be the perfect case study. Entirely neglected by the American Academy, this loose biopic of the last days of Hollywood film siren Gloria Grahame—based on Peter Turner’s 1986 memoir of the same name—punched above its weight at BAFTA to crash the Best Actor categories, male and female, and score an adapted screenplay nod for its writer, Matt Greenhalgh.
On paper, this looked sure to be a hit with U.S. voters, since movies about fading Hollywood stars have been a staple at the Oscars from Sunset Boulevard (1950), through Singing in the Rain (1952), to 1963’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and 2011’s The Artist. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, however, perhaps belongs to a subset of this kind of movie that only appeals to the Brits: for one thing, like 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, it’s a very low-key and somewhat whimsical yarn, and, secondly, although she was kind of big in her day, Gloria Grahame was no Marilyn (“She has the face that you remember,” McGuigan told Deadline at the Toronto International Film Festival, “but she doesn’t necessarily have the name that you remember”).
Quite why Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool failed to get traction in the U.S. is baffling, with the weight of Sony Classics behind it in the domestic market. In both the Oscars and BAFTAs, star Bening has a track record of almost identical nominations, winning for American Beauty although failing, strangely, to impress U.K. voters with 2005’s theatrical drama Being Julia. But perhaps it’s easier to see what made the film work on the other side of the Atlantic: co-star Jamie Bell, 32 this spring, proved a hit with BAFTA voters after making his debut in Billy Elliot, and his performance—as the book’s Peter Turner, a jobbing actor who first fell in love with Grahame at a run-down boarding house in north London—shows a lot of promise yet from a young actor entering his leading-man prime.
More tellingly, screenwriter Greenhalgh has three previous BAFTA nods, all for biopics. Greenhalgh’s speciality is somehow creating a window into the souls of pop-culture icons; in Control, he showed the humor and frailty of Manchester’s Ian Curtis, lead singer with the impossibly melancholic industrial rock band Joy Division; while in Nowhere Boy he did the opposite, exploring the strange, dark love triangle formed by John Lennon, his mother and his aunt in his days before The Beatles. And in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Greenhalgh takes a subject that perhaps strikes more of a chord with Brexit-struck Britain than Donald Trump’s America; at its heart is the story of a woman too proud to ask for help, stubbornly marching off into the night, no matter what the consequences.
It seems unlikely that many British viewers will recall Grahame’s mighty run in the ’50s with films such as In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat and The Bad and the Beautiful—another film about Hollywood—but they will definitely see the humanity in her story, shepherded to the screen with great sensitivity by James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, a friend of the late actress. In the U.S., however, where Donald Trump’s MAGA populism doesn’t seem to see back far beyond the 1980s, it’s perhaps no wonder that Gloria Grahame missed her chance for a comeback; her quiet acceptance of oblivion just doesn’t suit these times.