The story of an ordinary bloke who falls in love with an extraordinary woman, one of the great Hollywood actress in the ’40s and ’50s.
30 years after Peter Turner published his memoir, entitled Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which recounted his tale of love and loss with former Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, the affectionate, moving and wry recollection of his unlikely story comes to the big screen with Annette Bening starring as Grahame, Jamie Bell as Turner.
“I have wanted to make this film for over 20 years,” says producer Barbara Broccoli. “It is very meaningful to me. I knew Gloria and Peter when they were together.”
It all began in late September 1981 when Peter Turner received a phone call that would change his life forever.
His former lover, Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, had collapsed in a Lancaster hotel. She refused medical attention and instead reached out to Turner, who at Grahame’s request took her to his warm if chaotic family home in Liverpool.
The pair had met a few years previously, their paths crossing in a Primrose Hill guesthouse in which they were lodging. Turner was an aspiring actor, Grahame a fading star. She had made her name in the Hollywood studio system, often playing the moll, the floozy or as Turner notes in his memoir ‘the tart with the heart,’ appearing in a string of film noirs, including the likes of the sad and hauntingly romantic In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart (shot by her husband at the time, Nicholas Ray) and the Fritz Lang classic The Big Heat opposite Lee Marvin.
Gloria shone in the likes of Crossfire, for which she was Oscar nominated, Naked Alibi and Sudden Fear, while her turn in The Bad and The Beautiful scooped her an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress. She brought humour to the role of Ado Annie Carnes, the girl who ‘can’t say no’, in the film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and added plenty of vim to the part of the elephant girl in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. She also featured as Violet in the Christmas-time favourite It’s A Wonderful Life.
And yet she fell on hard times and in her 50s ended up working in smaller scale theatre productions in the UK. She was, as her landlady notes in the script for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, ‘a big name in black and white films. Not doing too well in colour.’ When Turner met her in his late 20s, he had no idea who she was. And yet these like-minded souls struck up a friendship, which then blossomed into a full-blown romance.
A move to New York followed, though their relationship did not last, collapsing under the weight of the couple’s insecurities and Grahame’s second diagnosis with cancer, a fact she kept hidden from Turner.
It was only in the wake of her collapse in Lancaster on that fateful day in 1981 that Turner learned the full extent of her health problems. Though their relationship had failed, their friendship endured and it was to Turner she turned in her hour of need.
Broccoli got to know Turner when he was working on a series called Spearhead alongside her boyfriend at the time. “I then met Gloria several times. She was such an extraordinary actress and such a lovely person. There was something captivating about her.
“Obviously, when Gloria died it was devastating and Peter was bereft,” Broccoli continues. “But then quite some time later he showed us this manuscript and said that he had sent it off to a publisher. It was such a moving, simple, beautiful memoir.”
It was published by Pan Macmillan in the UK, Picador in US, and it received a positive reception. “Peter and I talked about making a film version and though it has taken a long time, we are finally here.”
“I thought it was a really fantastic story and a completely unique book,” producer Colin Vaines says. “I’d never read anything quite like it. It was a really unusual love story between two people from two entirely different worlds, and it was about the enduring power of love.”
Vaines could also see that audiences would readily connect with the character of Peter Turner. “For most people he’s an ordinary bloke and he’s trying to make a living. He’s doing okay, but something special happens to him and that can happen to people in all sorts of ways when you fall in love with somebody. And it just so happened that he met an extraordinary woman, who, as it turned out, had been a great Hollywood actress in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Around eight years ago Vaines revisited Turner’s book and says he was still struck by its potency. He saw that the rights were with Broccoli and asked her if she’d like to collaborate on the project, working with a young screenwriter called Matt Greenhalgh, who had penned the screenplays for Control and Nowhere Boy.
In 2005 Matt Greenhalgh wrote the single film Legless for Red/Channel 4 and 2007 saw the start of Matt’s prosperous film career with the release of the award winning Control, a biopic of Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis. Control was nominated for Best Screenplay and was the winner of ‘Best British Independent Film’, amongst others, at the British Independent Film Awards. Matt was also the winner of the ‘Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer’ at the BAFTAs in 2008. Additional awards include the ‘Silver Hugo Awards for Best Screenplay’ at Chicago International Film Festival.
Matt’s second feature film was Nowhere Boy, a chronicle of young John Lennon’s early years, which closed the London Film Festival in 2009. Nowhere Boy also received multiple nominations such as ‘Best Screenplay’ at the BIFA’s in 2009 and ‘Outstanding British Film’ at the BAFTA’s in 2010.
Matt has written and directed two short films, Acid Burn and Supermarket Girl, and went on to write the feature The Look of Love for Revolution Films, the story of London porn baron turned property millionaire Paul Raymond.
“There was something about Matt’s writing that I responded to,” adds Vaines, “and I thought that he had exactly the right qualities for getting the story of Peter Turner. I knew he would understand both aspects of it — the world of the working class boy and also the world that she came from. So I asked Barbara if she was interested in working on this together, and I suggested Matt as the writer.”
Broccoli loved the idea. She says Greenhalgh did a great job with the screenplay and she and Vaines were delighted Paul McGuigan wanted to direct. Vaines explains, “Both Barbara and I felt that Paul brings this great visual quality to filmmaking but that he also has this great connection with the actors, and he really got the script.”
Born in Bellshill, Scotland, Paul McGuigan has demonstrated a particularly strong talent for handling crime and drama narratives. He began his occupational life as a still photographer before working his way into the documentary field, helming nonfiction assignments for Channel 4 and the BBC. His foray into fiction work commenced with his short The Granton Star Cause an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s short stories.
The film gained critical acclaim and inspired Paul to helm two additional self-contained episodes, also adapted from the work of Welsh and stitched together as a well-received omnibus called The Acid House. Paul’s early fiction laid the groundwork for his move into features on a full-time basis, starting with the inventive crime sagas Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin.
He followed these with the medieval film The Reckoning, the eerie, atmospheric romantic mystery Wicker Park, and Victor Frankenstein. In recent years, Paul has encountered great success as the director of a number of television programmes, including the critically acclaimed Sherlock series which earned him a BAFTA and Emmy nomination.
Broccoli concurs. “I had wanted to work with Paul for many years and getting him on board was a catalyst to getting the film made.”
Filming Film Stars
For director Paul McGuigan the appeal of making Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool lay in Grahame herself, and the fact that this fascinating part of her life story was told through Peter Turner’s unique experience.
“Having worked in film for so many years I have watched a lot of Gloria Grahame’s films,” he says. “She had this amazing life, which was somewhat controversial as well, but Peter didn’t know anything about her; it was in the days before the internet.
“I also liked the clean storytelling device of having this young man falling in love with her. And then the audience gets to know her through his eyes,” he adds. “I thought that was really nice, and it was a great book as well. Then Matt’s script distils this story down even more; it is a very tight script.”
Matt Greenhalgh, says that Turner’s book took him by surprise. “I wasn’t expecting this story at all,” he says. “And yet I could immediately see the potential in it. A story like this needs to have a certain amount of depth to grip the audience as you can’t just play off Gloria’s name. She is not that well known any more. It’s not like she’s Marilyn Monroe. It is testament to the book that you feel like it should be a movie when you read it.”
McGuigan responded to Greenhalgh’s script immediately and had a clear and unique vision for how he wanted to tell this particular story. “I didn’t want to tell the story of who she was until Peter found out who she really was,” he says. “I didn’t want to do flashbacks to her life or to her movies.”
Instead, McGuigan chose to pay homage to a number of her famous works, especially those film noirs. “I wanted a lot of the scenes to feel quite theatrical with a lot of them based in the studio.”
Hence, there are a number of interesting transitions between different scenes. “We did a lot of transitions where the set would turn and you’d end up in another set,” the director explains. “A character would walk through a door from one setting and would end up in Los Angeles or they’d walk through a door and they’d end up on a beach.”
In addition, he tipped his hat to Grahame’s filmography by using back projection, a common technique in many of her film noirs. One notable example comes in a beach scene that Grahame and Turner share in Malibu, which is a specific reference to a classic Grahame-Bogart moment from In a Lonely Place.
“We looked at a lot of the movies she did and we referenced a number of scenes from them, like that beach scene,” McGuigan says. “I wanted to replicate that back projection like the way they used to do it the movies. I wanted that same kind of feeling.
“Everything is done through the camera. Normally, you would use a green screen for a scene like that and then you’d fill it in later or you would actually go to the beach itself. But I liked the idea of having this sense of heightened reality.”
Another idea that McGuigan employed was to shoot one particularly important scene — the couple’s break up in Grahame’s New York apartment — from two different perspectives. This allows the audience to better understand why Grahame had to let Turner go.
McGuigan explains, “I show the same scene twice so that you see the break up from Peter’s point of view. You see the chain of events that ends up with them splitting up. And then ten minutes later you go back and we do it through Gloria’s point of view. This allows you to understand why she had to let him go, and it’s really clear, emotionally.”
Sense and Sensitivity
For all the filmmakers, it was imperative that they not only tell a beautiful story but that they do so in a tactful and delicate manner. They had to be sensitive to Turner’s story and his experience.
Bell explains, “Peter is such a nice man, incredibly giving and incredibly loving. I can see why someone like Gloria Grahame would fall in love with him. And even now, all these years later, it is incredibly raw and incredibly visceral for him. This is his life and Gloria was a very important person in his life. In a way this experience shapes his life and defines him.
“So it was up to me, Annette, Barbara and Paul to approach this with a lot of caution and care because this is someone’s very personal experiences that we are now sharing with the world.”
According to Bening, the love they shared was unique. “He was this young guy who grew up in a big family in Liverpool and she grew up in Hollywood,” she says. She is much older; she had been a big movie star.
“She is not Marilyn Monroe but there is something very unique about her and, God knows, about her personal life. Then looking at this connection she had with Peter, I have ended up thinking that he must have been the gentlest, most loving, accepting person that she probably had ever been with. We need to show that.”
Above all, says Broccoli, they wanted to respect Grahame’s memory. “And this film celebrates the amazing career that she had and the fact that she was so much her own person.”
Vaines agrees. “Gloria is such a very interesting character,” he says. “She was a real maverick and she never played the game in the Hollywood system. But she was very sexy and very beautiful and had this great sort of ironic sense of herself and of the characters that she played.”
It was this side to her that Broccoli really admired. “Gloria didn’t give into the Hollywood system,” she says. “She always maintained her own sense of self and she was way ahead of her time. She was very pro the woman’s movement and gay rights. She really fought for all those things. She was a remarkable woman and this is a special story.”
Leading lady Annette Bening has long harboured ambitions to play Gloria Grahame in this story. In fact, she and Broccoli had first spoken about the role over 20 years ago
For four-time Oscar nominee Bening, the long wait between her first conversations with Broccoli and the film going into production has been a real boon. “The fact that Barbara and I talked about it many, many years ago enriches the part,” the actress says, “because even if you are not sitting around thinking about it every day it goes into your unconscious and it percolates. It certainly did with me.
“The whole nature of the story and the unique, eccentric relationship that they had and what it meant to them and then how Peter wrote about it – that always stayed with me.”
“The way that Peter saw her from the time that he had first met her until the end of the story has an incredible range,” says Bening, “and the movie, I hope, reflects that. There is a journey that she goes through from the time they first met until the end.
“The story in the film is told out of sequence but I had to have it my mind as this arc. When you consider her state of mind there is no absolute answer because Gloria isn’t telling the story. Peter is telling the story so it’s really his point of view.”
With a story drawn from Turner’s memoir and told largely from his perspective, finding the right actor for the role was imperative. According to Broccoli, it was a difficult part to cast.
“The movie is mostly told from Peter’s point of view so he is the way in for the audience,” she says. “He is the window into Gloria’s world and he has to be very believable and truthful. You have to understand all the emotional complexities of his character, everything he is going through.
“It is very much a coming-of-age story for Peter because Gloria had such an impact on him and it has affected Peter for his whole life. This relationship has left its mark so the actor we chose had to fill very big shoes.”
For Bell, the role of Peter Turner was both multifaceted and highly rewarding. “It is really a rollercoaster of a film for my character,” the actor says. “He goes through the gamut of everything – falling in love, losing someone, the pressures that come with all that stuff. Plus, his family is really on his case.
“Paul really wanted a sense of fluidity of remembering and moving into the past, moving into memories and sometimes how those memories are warped from different people’s perspectives. The use of that in the film is very original and it is a great way of telling a story. We also have an amazing cast across the board. I really wanted to be a part of this.”