Film review – Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017)


Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame was one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s film noir era. With a film career that spanned the 1940s to the 1970s, she enjoyed commercial and critical success for her varied roles, including the seductive Violet Bick in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), her Oscar-nominated role as Ginny Tremaine in Crossfire (1947), headstrong neighbour Laurel Gary in In A Lonely Place (1950) and the shallow Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad and The Beautiful (1957), the latter of which earned her an Academy Award win.

In 1974, Gloria had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following successful treatment, the cancer went into remission.

By 1978, she had relocated to Liverpool to work on a play, co-habiting with a young man named Peter Turner, who was just 26-years-old. It was Turner with whom she formed an unlikely romance and ended up having a relationship with him that lasted until the end of her life.

Grahame was 57 when she died in October 1981.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

An adaptation of Peter Turner’s book of the same title, the film covers the final two years of Grahame’s life, spent largely in Liverpool, and less so in Manhattan, as she played out this romantic relationship with Turner. It is at turns baffling and equally heartbreaking that a woman who had once lived next door to Lauren Becall and Humphrey Bogart would end her life in a small council house in Liverpool, far from the glamorous life she so obviously thrived on in her earlier years.

One of the most important aspects of a believable romantic film is the chemistry between those portraying the central characters. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening have it in buckets, never once failing to be brilliantly convincing. Whether it’s the scene in which she spontaneously instigates a spot of disco dancing in her spacious flat, or casually and flintily orders a pint at the local pub as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, it is clear the are completely at ease with one another.

Benning paints a frustrated picture of Grahame. Her angry response at Turner suggesting she is older than she believed she was is jarring and unexpected and reveals a lot about her character. She may have delivered a memorably-celebrated performance as Ado Annie in the blockbuster musical Oklahoma! in 1955, but she felt too old for the part even at the age of 32 (the part typically demands an actress around ten years younger than this’d she was just two years younger than James Whitmore who portrayed her fathering the film). Her continued desire to have relationships with younger men may be viewed as untoward in the current climate, but it was perhaps indicative that she simply saw herself as younger than she was and unable to accept that she was ageing.

But this is a subtle and developing romance. Peter enters the relation naively, discovering more about the woman he loves as time progresses. There’s a memorable scene where he goes to watch a Grahame picture at a retrospective at a local arthouse cinema, which reveals to him just how successful she was. Later on, the heartbreaking scene as she reads Shakespeare on an empty stage with Turner – thus fulfilling a lifelong dream – is one that really packs an emotional punch.

The attention to detail on the scenery and props is exemplary, invoking the 1980s era perfectly. It’s easy to portray a caricature of the 1980s in anything set there, but this feels as miserable and as outdated as you’d expect a port town in 1981 to feel.

The soundtrack goes some way to furthering this overall impression. Tracks from Elvis Costello, A Taste of Honey and Elton John add to the sense of the age. There is also a beautifully wistful new composition from Elvis Costello titled “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way”, which is surely a strong contender for an Oscar nomination this year.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a beautiful and heartbreaking film with some strong performances and a final result that makes it one of the best dramas of the year.

Film review – Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987)

What do you get if you cross the director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther, one of the sexiest women of a generation, the film debut of one of the most bankable actors of all time and a soundtrack by one of the most celebrated film composers in film history?

A steaming pile of cinematic turd, that’s what.

It’s a rare occurrence to find a film with a run time of just 95 minutes that somehow feels like it drags on. But Blake Edwards has managed it with ‘Blind Date’, a turgid effort if ever you’ve seen one.

Bruce Willis does his best as an ambitious and hardworking career man named Walter Davis. Walter must attend an important dinner with his colleagues, boss and the Managing Director of an important business partner from Japan. However, Mr Yakamoto has very traditional values and Walter is advised to take a date to the meal. In desperation, he calls up his friend Ted (Phil Hartman), who recommends he takes his wife’s cousin Nadia, played by the usually irresistible Kim Basinger.

It’s unusual that a rom-com tries to put a shocking twist or genre-challenging break to the norm. Blind Date doesn’t even attempt to change this. The humour derives from the fact that Nadia can’t take her drink and Walter is advised not to let her have even a sip of alcohol. Of course, Walter forgets this and Nadia instantly becomes wild, causing absolute mayhem at the dinner and leading to Walter losing his job.

By the end of the night they are being pursued by Nadia’s maniacal ex-boyfriend and Walter ends up in prison. It feels like a spoiler but the entire plot is played out in the tag line on many of the posters. Plus it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year so it’s hardly new news.

One of the most remarkable choices is to recolour Basinger’s hair brown and cover up her eyes with a dreadful fringe. This is one of the pin-ups of the 1980s, known for her beautiful blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Here, she loses one and has the other covered up, with no obvious reason for either choice.

Bruce Willis, here billed second to Basinger, is clearly still finding his feet as he made the transition from American sitcom Moonlighters – and that dreadful pop career – to Hollywood A-lister. It’s hard to imagine that by the time this film was released he was already filming Die Hard. Noticeably, Fox Plaza, tbe building that starred as the Nakatomi Towers in that film, can be seen half-built in the background of a scene at Walter’s office.

Remarkably, Madonna was originally cast to star as Nadia in the film. She turned it down because director Blake Edwards refused to accommodate her wish to cast Sean Penn, at the time Madonna’s husband, as Walter. Of the incident, she said, “I was supposed to have approval of… the leading man, but they didn’t tell me they’d already hired Bruce Willis.” In my opinion, this film would have been even worse had the pair been involved, and viewers need only seek out 1986’s ‘Shanghai Surprise’ for evidence of exactly how bad it could have been.

Even Henry Mancini’s score feels bland and half-hearted, which is disappointing from the man who brought us ‘The Pink Panther Theme’ and ‘Moon River’. I do note that a better film could have made me see the score differently.

Fans of The Simpsons will take great pleasure in hearing Phil Hartman produce his best Troy McClure voice when he’s describing Nadia over the phone to Walter. It’s unmistakable and one of the few positives that helped me get through the ordeal.

It’s a film that has been largely forgotten by everyone who saw it and everyone involved with the film. Forgetting it is something I’ll be trying to do too, as quickly as

Film review – All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The year was 1955. Eisenhower was president of the United States. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born. Bill Haley and His Comets were flying high on both sides of the Atlantic with their hit ‘Rock Around The Clock’, just before the global phenomenon that was Elvis Presley really took hold. It was also the year that the civil rights movement began to take off in the USA, notably including the groundbreaking Rosa Parks bus incident.

Cinema-goers were able to escape to enjoy a range of musical hits including Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, whilst the highest-grossing film at the box office was a travel documentary called Cinerama Holiday. Jane Wyman, one of the top 10 highest-grossing film stars of the previous year, was cast in Douglas Sirk’s latest Technicolor romance ‘All That Heaven Allows’. She would be playing opposite Rock Hudson, two years before he’d be at the top of the very same list.

Wyman portrays affluent widow Cary Scott, a woman with two college-aged children and no shortage of men interested in her affections, all of the rich, well-to-do, country club variety. Hudson portrays a much more grounded gardener by the name of Ron Kirby, a man of strong morals and much more appealing looks. Her attraction is palpable, despite being eight years his senior and several rungs higher on the social ladder. As their romance blossoms, so grows the disapproval of their relationship amongst their friends and peers.

It wasn’t the first time Sirk had used them together. 1954’s ‘Magnificent Obsession’ also featured Wyman as a mourning widow and a spoiled playboy played by Hudson accused of contributing to his death. Wyman may have been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film, but it is ‘All That Heaven Knows’ that has stood the test of time critically. Indeed, The Guardian placed it at 11th on a list of the greatest romantic films of all time in a critics’ poll released in 2010.

It is not a particularly intellectual film by modern standards, but within the genre and against other films of the same era, there is an emotional punch and considered social commentary running throughout that lifts it above the mire. Wyman may be older, but she is certainly attractive. Sirk dares to question why she shouldn’t be allowed to have an interest in the younger man in her life. Who wouldn’t? This is Rock Hudson after all. The men vying for her attention are all at least ten years her senior. Indeed, Conrad Nagel, whose Harvey eventually receives a well-deserved punch from Hudson’s Ron, is twenty years older than Wyman. That no character questions this is a sad reflection on the state of society in 1955, though it is ten years better than the romance sold to audiences in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina just one year earlier. Sadly, it’s a situation still prevalent in Hollywood some sixty years later.

For all of Rock Hudson’s impressive physicality and charming smile, it is Wyman that wipes the floor with the rest of the cast. Her performance is nuanced and brought to life perfectly by some wonderful mise en scène from Sirk. This is a woman trapped by both society and her own fear of being seen to be selfish. She continuously puts her children first, because that is what is expected of her. The heartbreaking moment when she finally informs her spoiled son Ned (William Reynolds) that she has left her man behind is as frustrating for the viewer as it is for her, with Wyman connecting with us the deflation as her son hangs up on her without a second thought.

Sharp-eared Disney fans may also note an uncredited speaking role for Eleanor Audley, who was both the evil stepmother in Cinderella (1950) and the Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959). She plays a disapproving party-goer in Act 2.

This may not be the high point in the careers of either of its stars, nor that of the director, but it’s worth seeking out nonetheless. Beautifully shot and with a purpose behind its potentially saccharine plot, it offers the chance to enjoy a romance that has slipped under the radar due simply to the passing of time rather than an evident lack of quality.

Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)

In 1954, Audrey Hepburn was at the start of a run that saw some of her most popular roles, having been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Funny Face the year before and also winning a Tony Award for her title role in the stage production of Ondine in 1954. Sabrina’s release saw her cement her position as a global star, providing an Academy Award nomination for her role, a win for the costume design for Edith Head [1] and garnering critical and commercial success worldwide. 


The following paragraph summarises the synopsis, but potentially has spoilers for the first fifty minutes of the film. I’ve not seen the trailer, but I imagine it reveals more. Also, the film was released 61 years ago, so it’s hard to complain about spoilers. Skip it if you’re concerned. 

Audrey Hepburn stars as title character Sabrina Fairchild, the young daughter of the chauffer to the Larrabee family. Sabrina has been in love with the playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) all her life, despite the fact he barely notices her. Sabrina begrudgingly agrees to go to Paris to attend a culinary school, but on her return two years later she is a completely changed woman, full of style, charm and sophistication. Inevitably, David immediately takes notice, and his attraction to Sabrina jeopardises a pre-arranged marriage that has been organised to benefit the family business, much to the dismay of workaholic older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), who formulates a plan to get the deal back on track.


It marked the first time Hepburn had worked with Billy Wilder, who was one of the most prominent film directors at the time. By this point he’d already notched up Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace In The Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953), amongst others. His films had by this time won 8 Academy Awards and been nominated an additional 28 times. Ultimately, Sabrina would prove to be equally popular, adding an additional win and three further nominations to his belt.

The successes were completely justified. Wilder may be on comfortable territory with a fairly standard love triangle, but few director-screenwriters could inject so much life into the script. If you want to see Wilder capturing Hepburn at her most playfully charming, there are few finer examples than her journey back from the airport with Holden’s David. It’s perfectly written and delivered and is one of the film’s many highlights.

Much has been made of Bogart’s awkwardness on set. He was one of the most established actors in Hollywood and at the time was still one of the biggest box office draws. He frequently had disagreements with Wilder and Holden, and later publicly denounced Audrey Hepburn’s acting ability. The friction doesn’t really transfer to the screen, with all the actors apparently on top of their game. 

The only thing that stands out is the age of the actors in the love triangle. William Holden was 36, Hepburn 24 and Bogart 54. I agree to the much-discussed theory that Holden would have been better as the older brother Linus, with a younger actor appearing as David. Holden had proved to Wilder his depth as an actor in both Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 and by comparison the character of David seems a little shallow. He handles it well, but age-wise having Sabrina fall in love with a man 30 years her senior seems unusual.

Sabrina has been remembered as one of Audrey Hepburn’s finest moments. It’s a quintessential part of her filmography: she was in the process of becoming a star, was able to show off her acting ability, had one of the greatest directors of all time directing her and was wearing de Givenchy’s costumes for the first time. If you’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady, then this is your next stop.

Sabrina can be purchased as part of the Hepburn Collection Blu-Ray boxset.

[1] The costumes that Audrey Hepburn wears are absolutely beautiful, much like the actress herself. Edith Head was credited with the Academy Award for Best Costumes, but there is an ongoing suggestion that they were mainly created by Hubert de Givenchy. Both were adamant that they were responsible for the costume design until their deaths, though the fact that de Givenchy became Hepburn’s go-to costume designer for much of her career suggests it is more than likely that Head had little involvement with her clothing. Whilst there were many other characters to dress, the Oscar was clearly given as a merit to Hepburn’s memorable costumes.