It’s not an unfamiliar story about 1950s film studio era diva Gloria Grahame that screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh offers, and it’s a sympathetic rendering, but not so cloying as to go dime-store hagiographic. Tinsel town affords a wide girth to a woman of note wanting to embellish romance by thumbing her nose at the patriarchy and the ripple effect of the nuclear family. After all, for women, and by extension, men, those ripples amount to little more than iron-clad boundaries and assumptions meant to keep her staid and girded. In earlier eras they took the form of shackles or chastity belts. Setting it in 1980s Hollywood, and by contrast, in the partly squalid yet reassuringly authentic Labor Party domain of Liverpool, washes it with a rare if semi-gloss coating of candor. There’s a picket sign tacked to the wall of a local pub. It formerly read “Fight Greed,” but “Greed” has been crossed out with magic marker, and “Capitalism!” is scrawled in its place, tendering license to correct any remaining deliberate social or class misnomers.
Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) is a 28-year-old aspiring actor with a day job. He lives in one of those rooming houses that men not yet certain about their sexual trajectory sometimes inhabit (cf “Cabaret”). He is there partly out of indigence and partly hoping to find an extra helping of adventure of every description on his plate, without having to risk asking for it.
Turner discovers that a new boarder is the Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame, age 54. Her fading glory does not prevent her from feathering her flagging pheromones with cultivated charm and flirtatiousness meant to attract young men at loose ends deemed potential admirers. While sexually self-disclosing, she studiously hides from both herself and acolytes such as Peter, pertinent facts of her life which inevitably carry consequences for them. Gloria and Peter find their complementary ions in a scene where she invites him in to dance to cuts from “Saturday Night Fever” and to “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” That rolls over, as she knows it will, into a tri-coastal, brief, but all-consuming affair that would be the envy of anyone who wants to live life free of stifling social convention.
If all is fair in love, then it is even more so in war, and what war is more perplexing than the one that attaches itself to sibling rivalry? In a scene where Gloria takes the calculated risk of introducing Peter to her mother (Vanessa Redgrave, etching a pointillist portrait of her character) and sister Joy (Frances Barber), Joy bides her time with a silent sangfroid until the time is right for a clear shot. Only then does she take the floor to expose Gloria’s marital history, profiled by a preference for younger men, including Gloria’s 13-year-old stepson, who eventually became her fourth husband. It’s a scene that is improbable, given the care and skill with which Gloria guards or discounts her past, and yet once in front of us, showcases Gloria’s vulnerability, frustration, anger and self-impeachment.
Perhaps the most affecting scene (in part because it could have turned cheap and trite but didn’t) occurs when Peter inveigles Gloria to partner with him in a staged reading of “Romeo and Juliet,” Act I, Scene V. Though she can’t reconcile herself to her real age, Gloria has nursed a life-long wish to play Juliet. Up to this point, both actors have excelled at finding their characters. Their work moves into a more poignant realm when the characters they become are Shakespeare’s played by their characters. Peter has acted deliberately for the first time. He has proactively removed himself and Gloria from their traffic in personal conflict to become the theater’s iconic lovers of all time. Thanks to this bold act on his part, Bening and Bell unveil a spectrum of talent that stamps their performances throughout with the seal of equal engagement, not only as characters, but as the co-stars. This accomplished, Peter credibly gives authority over to himself for the first time in his life without taking it away from Gloria, to steer her into the certainty of a safe harbor for the first time in hers.