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fame game

Gloria Grahame: the woman, not the myth

In Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, Annette Bening tackles the scandalous film noir starlet. Crazy casting? After sitting down with Bening, it makes a lot of sense

When you first hear, "Annette Bening is playing Gloria Grahame," you think, "That's crazy talk." Grahame, who died at 57 in 1981, was one kind of actress: Her characters were too ready to say yes, too easy to nudge into misbehaving. In the role for which most of us know her, the flirty Violet in It's a Wonderful Life, she's the archetypal girl who can't help it, narrowly rescued from herself by George's decency.

Grahame is best known for playing Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life. Courtesy Everett Collection

The critic Judith Williamson writes that Grahame represented an "acted-upon femininity, both unfathomable and ungraspable." The critic David Thomson writes that her characters were always "less than reliable … hints of turbulence ready to break out … Any room became a place where coffee was coming to the boil." Although she won an Oscar for 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful, she was fated to be known as "the girl you want to walk home, because you know you'll get lucky," as a character puts it in the new drama Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, about the last chapter of Grahame's (Bening) life.

"When you look at her movies, there's always somebody beating her up," Bening summed up in a hotel-room interview during last September's Toronto International Film Festival. "In her own life, she had a lot of that, a lot of tempestuous times."

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Bening, of course, is another kind of actress: Whether she's playing seductresses (Valmont, The Grifters, Bugsy); unhappy wives (American Beauty, Running with Scissors); or complicated mothers (The Kids Are All Right; 20th Century Women), she can never disguise her native intelligence, and her best roles spin their drama around her compassionate sanity.

As well, Grahame lived in a noir version of Hollywood: Born in Los Angeles to an actress mother, she appeared on stage young and dropped out of Hollywood High. MGM put her on contract, then sold her abruptly to RKO. She never thought she was pretty enough, and permanently damaged her upper lip with plastic surgery. She starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin (his character in The Big Heat scarred hers by throwing coffee in her face), for directors including Vincente Minnelli, Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang, but many scoffed at her playing wholesome in Oklahoma! She married an actor (Stanley Clements), a director (Nicholas Ray) and a writer (Cy Howard), and then scandalized everyone by marrying the director's son – her stepson – Tony Ray. In her final years, while doing regional theatre in Britain, she fell in love with the much younger Peter Turner; his book Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is the basis for the film.

In Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Annette Bening plays Grahame in her final years.

Bening, on the other hand, lives in a Hollywood that people don't often think about: the place where some of the most interesting, imaginative and engaged people in the world come to work. Married for 25 years to Warren Beatty, she has four children with whom they're "besotted," Bening says. Raised in the Midwest, Bening "probably wouldn't have moved to L.A., but I fell in love with Warren, and he was in L.A. But the most incredible people are there. We have friends from all different worlds, a lot of politics." They throw dinner parties, read paper newspapers and listen to National Public Radio.

When you see Bening as Grahame, however, you get it. Turner met Grahame the woman, not the myth, and that's who Bening plays: her rawness and resilience, her sexiness and sense of humour, her love of family and of working hard. In Bening's hands, Grahame's story becomes utterly contemporary – an older woman fighting to remain employed in a world that wants to pigeonhole and marginalize her; a woman who's internalized the idea that maybe she's not worthy of love; a woman whose "shocking" affair would be a shrug if the genders were reversed. The film is also a rumination on time and the movies – how all actors live with multiple versions of themselves, perpetually young, while they age.

"Isn't it fascinating, how an older woman with a younger man still really pushes people's buttons?" Bening asks. "It's so accepted the other way. My husband and I are 21 years apart. It's really ridiculous. That part of it is worth making a movie about, to me. Even if the woman wasn't Gloria Grahame."

Bening, 59, has a voice that calls to mind faceted jewels. Her hair is short, and she wears interesting glasses and many layers of cream-colored, expensively casual clothing. I'd call her regal if she weren't so warm. She regularly flips my questions back to me – "But what do you think?" Some actors do this to burn up interview minutes; when Bening does it, it seems genuine, an authentic interest in another's thoughts.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is also a rumination on time and the movies.

She'd studied Grahame 30 years ago, for her breakout role in The Grifters. For Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, she read (and ignored) a couple of "cheesy" biographies (although Grahame's perpetually chipped nail polish was her idea). "Then I met Peter Turner, and it was, 'Oh!'" Bening says. "He's an interesting man, a good man. Grahame's attraction becomes very clear. I get the feeling that no one had ever treated her with that much care. He adored her, and treated her with respect."

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In the film, Turner is played by Jamie Bell ( Billy Elliot), who, at 31, is almost half Bening's age. "I'm really grateful to Jamie," she says. "You are vulnerable to the other person, in a good way, when you're trying to find things that you don't know you're looking for. We know what's on the page, but very quickly it's no longer on the page – it's about us, two human beings together in the flesh in the same room."

I ask if Bening felt at all self-conscious, playing opposite Bell's youth. For the merest flash, she bristles almost imperceptibly, then replies, "I felt very exposed, in a way I wanted to be. I was choosing to do that. I felt that was important for Gloria. She's at a very – I hate the world vulnerable, but she's at a point in her life where things aren't pretty."

In Bening’s hands, Grahame’s story becomes utterly contemporary: an older woman fighting to remain employed in a world that wants to pigeonhole and marginalize her.

Bening, on the other hand, is relishing this time of her life. "Is everything great about getting older? No," she says flatly. "But there are so many things that are more freeing, that most women I know feel. Especially if we've had kids. Our kids are getting older, so my husband and I have more time for each other. I've always had great friends, but my connections with other women are richer.

"And I feel freer on a deeper level, too," she continues. "I don't care as much about what people think. I know what's important to me. And it's fun not being a neophyte. It's fun being a veteran of life. I know myself better. I understand what matters and what doesn't. I understand more about my work, and about people. I like that."

So, as for Bening playing Grahame – if Grahame somehow could have known that one day that would happen, I think she'd have been astonished. And thrilled.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is playing now in Toronto and Vancouver, and opens Feb. 9 in Montreal.

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