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Review: "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"

If you follow the Oscars -- especially, if you've been following them for many years -- sometimes the stories behind who win and why they win can become more fascinating than the Oscar-winning films themselves. Take the case of Annette Bening, for example. After her Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1990's The Grifters, her first real shot at winning an Oscar came with her Best Actress nod for 1999's Best Picture-winner American Beauty. Bening lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry that year. Flash forward a few years later to Bening's next Oscar nomination, 2004's Being Julia (for which the National Board of Review awarded her Best Actress): Bening lost the Oscar again. And to who? None other than Hilary Swank (again) who won for Million Dollar Baby.

It was after this "Swanky-twofer" that Bening's hunt for the prestigious Oscar-worthy performance got kicked into high gear, for better and worse. Outside of her nod for 2010's The Kids Are All Right (for which I personally thought she should've won for, but then again, nothing was going to stop Black Swan's Natalie Portman), Bening's acting choices and overall films failed to rise to the occasion. Here's a refresher: 2006's Running with Scissors, 2009's Mother and Child, and 2013's The Face of Love. If none of those titles are ringing a startling bell in your head...well then, my point exactly.

And now we have Bening's Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (which premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival) and I'm sorry to report that it fails to coalesce into the intended film that would finally win Bening her Best Actress Oscar. It has all the fixings though: it's set in Europe, it's based on a true story and Bening plays real-life 1950s movie starlet Gloria Grahame (during her later years).

Early in the film, we meet Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a Liverpool stage actor in his late 20s working in the local theatre circuit -- but currently living at home with his family. It's the middle of the night when Peter arrives home, still wearing eyeliner from that night's production, and gets a phone call from an old flame: Gloria Grahame. Gloria has found herself hospital-ridden and ill but asks if she can stay with Peter's family in Liverpool until she's well enough to return home to America. Obviously, enough history was there for Gloria to feel comfortable (and appropriate) enough to throw the burden on Peter's family for aftercare. It's at this point we begin to see flashbacks to the starting stages of Peter and Gloria's May-December romance

And it's during these first flashbacks when the film works best. Bening has a nice time playing it up as the much more seasoned lover, playing emotional footsie with Peter, who slowly starts to realize who Gloria really is (a former movie star). Eventually the flashbacks take us to an extended vacation stint in New York City, where we learn more of Gloria's true illness from two vantage point versions: Peter's frustrated point of view and Gloria's sacrificial point of view. Much of the denouement that follows includes textbook teary-eyed set pieces, like a stage reading of "Romeo & Juliet" to an empty auditorium. It's not that the film's heart's in the wrong place, it's just cobbled together in a half-baked way that feels more like a lukewarm made-for-TV drama than it does a sweeping biopic tearjerker.

By the time credits rolled I just sat there, underwhelmed. Then a cruel irony hit me: Gloria Grahame won an Oscar back in her day.