So when will Annette Bening win her Oscar already? Last year, the four-time nominee didn't even get a nomination for her superlative performance as an aging single mother confounded by her teenage son in Mike Mills's 20th Century Women. And now, the Academy hasn't acknowledged her work playing one of its own, the fading actress Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. That's too bad because, in a year when everybody has been talking unendingly about gender relations in Hollywood, Bening's subtle performance as the dying Grahame has a lot to say about gender and glamour.
Based on a memoir of the same title by the British actor Peter Turner, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is the story of how the struggling young thespian had an affair with a colleague 30 years older and sheltered the Hollywood star in his parents' home in Liverpool as she died of cancer. He was in his late 20s; she was in her late 50s, well past her glory days playing sultry temptresses in black-and-white movies.
It's a decidedly odd, down-beat story and yet, if the sexes were reversed, we would think nothing of a young woman swapping the role of lover for that of nurse when her much-older partner fell ill. Part of the reward of director Paul McGuigan's tasteful approach to the subject is the way neither Bening's Grahame nor Jamie Bell's hugely sympathetic Turner make much fuss about the age difference. Mainly the film portrays the two as kindred spirits who never question their attraction.
Still, if there is one thing that drives Gloria nuts, it's any suggestion she is old, and that is where Bening's performance gets so interesting. There's a revealing exchange in their first encounter in a London rooming house when she asks Peter how one goes about auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company; she wants to play Juliet. "Don't you mean the nurse?" he asks, and she flies off the handle, pulling back on a sweater she had been provocatively removing. Well, if he just thinks she's an old lady …
Cleverly popping back and forth in time, the film is set in two periods about two years apart; the first during Gloria's affair with Peter; the second when she collapses in her dressing room at the regional theatre where she has been starring in The Glass Menagerie and fetches up at his parents' house in Liverpool. So, Bening explores Gloria's unstoppable youthfulness as it meets an unmovable diagnosis.
At one point, Gloria hotly rejects the notion she is some kind of Blanche DuBois, the crazed old Southern belle of A Streetcar Named Desire (even as she has just been playing Amanda, the deluded mother not the fragile daughter, in The Glass Menagerie). It is as though her physical beauty is so central to Grahame's identity, she simply can't believe that she is aging, let alone dying. She asks Peter often, "How do I look?" He always responds enthusiastically that she looks beautiful. To tell her otherwise would be to tell her she is not herself.
She reminded me of the Oliver Sacks patient Jimmie G. from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The 49-year-old amnesiac still thought he was in his 20s and seemed perfectly content until the doctor showed him a mirror. Grahame doesn't see that playing Juliet would be ridiculous and, in a scene that Bening and Bell delicately fashion into the film's most touching, Peter arranges things so that for one moment at least she can finally play the teenage lover.
For all her illusions – Grahame sought no treatment for a recurrence of her cancer – Bening never turns Gloria into Blanche and does not reach for grand tragedy; her Gloria is a sad figure but she is never pathetic. Surrounded by Peter's salt-of-the-earth, working-class family – Kenneth Cranham and Julie Walters provide stalwart support as Mr. and Mrs. Turner – she is coddled all right, but nobody kowtows to her celebrity. They treat her lovingly as one of their own. Their gentleness and generosity is quietly moving and if they never call out her delusions of youth, they are finally forced to call out her delusion of immortality.
Bening has a talent for playing unpleasant or unseemly figures: the harridan in American Beauty, obviously, but also the grating and self-absorbed Dorothea in 20th Century Women and the posturing Gloria, who won her own Oscar for best supporting actress at the pivotal age of 29 in 1953. As Bening herself grows older, she has become particularly adept at revealing both the insecurity and the power of these aging women battling against the invisibility others might wish upon them. They are much harder characters to like than Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated turns – this year, it was Kay Graham in The Post, quietly but triumphantly coming into her power as a newspaper publisher; last year it was a much more joyful version of delusion in the shape of Florence Foster Jenkins – but Bening's roles make sharper points about the price women pay for society's expectations.
In a year when we have learned a lot about how Hollywood treats young women, Bening asks us to think about how it treats older ones.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool opens Jan. 26 in Toronto and Feb. 9 in Montreal.