To Hollywood, she was an aging star from the 1950s known for playing femme fatales.
Though she was decades his senior, to a young Peter Turner in Liverpool in the late 1970s, she was a fascinating woman and lover who changed his life.
Based on a true story by Turner, that romance between a young actor and Oscar-winning film star Gloria Grahame is the basis for the romantic drama Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, available now on digital and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
“I was 28. She was in her early 50s,” recalled Turner. “That was quite a big age gap at the time. It was quite unconventional.”
The film stars Annette Bening as Graham and Jamie Bell as Turner. Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave also star. It received three BAFTA Film Award nominations, including Best Leading Actress (Bening), Best Leading Actor (Bell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Matt Greenhalgh), in addition to its four British Independent Film Award nominations, including Best Actor (Bell) and Best Supporting Actress (Walters). The San Francisco Film Critics Circle and London Critics Circle Film Awards each nominated Bening’s performance, with her winning Best Actress at the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards.
Bening’s portrayal also gets high marks from Turner, who said, “She made the role her own.”
“There’s no impersonation involved,” he said. “Annette was very clear that she wanted to inhabit the essence of the woman, the truth of Gloria, the soul of Gloria. She didn’t want to put on a phony walk or flip-of-the-hair kind of thing or have a kind of big makeup job. She just wanted to have a kind of truthful portrayal.
“She said to me, ‘Peter, I might not be exactly the Gloria that you knew, but I will be, I promise you, the Gloria that I now know through you.’”
Of the real Grahame, Turner recalls knowing and loving a very singular individual.
“She was just very unique,” he said. “I’d never met anyone like her before or since really. She had this sort of natural kind of aura. She was funny. She was very, very clever and just a wonderful actress, and there was also a sweet vulnerability about her that was very endearing. She had a great sense of humor, and we just connected.”
Though she was typecast often as a femme fatale, the real person wasn’t like that, he said.
“She was quite quiet really,” he said. “She wasn’t boisterous.”
While known in her prime as very glamorous Hollywood royalty — in 1953 she won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Bad and the Beautiful — Turner noted she found it hard to do her makeup and hair.
“She never really nailed it, how to dress or how to do her makeup, because of course at the studios it was all done for her,” he said. “She liked to be very natural.”
Turner noted the age difference never bothered him during their romance, and wonders at the double standard that makes the love affair so unusual.
“If I had been in my early 50s and she was 20 no one would have batted an eye,” he said.
All that matters, he said, is human connection.
“Love doesn’t kind of know age really,” he said. “I think that the most important thing in any relationship of any kind of endurance is the love and the connection in the relationship, and I was very lucky to have shared that time of my life with such a wonderful, enlightened, beautiful, sensual, clever woman, and I shall always be grateful for everything that she gave me.”
The DVD release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool includes the music video for “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way” by Elvis Costello; film commentary with director Paul McGuigan, producer Barbara Broccoli and Turner; and four featurettes: “Elvis Costello Performance & Conversation,” “Making of the Music Video: ‘You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,’” “In Conversation with Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Paul McGuigan & Peter Turner,” and “Annette Bening on Gloria Grahame.”