Based on the autobiography of Peter Turner, who had a relationship with Hollywood star Gloria Grahame in the last years of her life, this serviceable biopic showcases Annette Bening’s fine acting skills, which mostly distracts us from the rose-tinted clichés.
Paul McGuigan (The Wrong Man) directs Jamie Bell as Peter Turner, the Liverpudlian 26-year-old actor who met 54-year-old Grahame (Bening) in the late 70s when she was appearing on stage in the UK. In a beautifully rendered scene, we get a glimpse of the dancing skills that made a young Bell shine as Billy Elliot when Turner and Grahame strike up a friendship as they disco dance.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, we see the development of their relationship, as well as the circumstances that bring them back together in 1981 when Grahame collapses before a performance. It’s cleverly done, with Turner passing through doorways that take him in to memory and back.
Turner is the centre of the narrative and you can see that he has customed himself as a simple hero, lost in love and then buffeted by grief. Grahame is the star though, and although often just a catalyst for Turner’s emotion, we do eventually see and understand her experience as she confronts ageing and mortality. This is most beautifully done when we see a scene replayed from Grahame’s point of view. It is the first time we see beyond her brittle, Hollywood facade; she lives her life as if the cameras are always on, coquettish, pleasing, and desperate for approval.
The age difference between Turner and Graham is handled in an interesting way. Bening is almost exactly the same age as Grahame in 1981 and it is almost shocking to see her look her age. We see the beginnings of looseness in the skin around her jaw and neck and her hands are blotched and wrinkled. Not knowing otherwise, I assumed Grahame was in her late 60s or 70s with a 40 to 50 year age gap between her and Turner and that the director had deliberately aged Bening. Looking at press footage of her promoting the film, I can see that nothing was accentuated, this is Bening as she is.
When Turner and Grahame first kiss, my fellow cinemagoers were uneasy; giggling and shifting in their seats. It left me wondering at the many Hollywood films that have a similar age gap between romantic leads but, with the genders reversed, no point needs to be made and it is barely noticed. A quick search found many with an age gap of 25 years or more: Lost in Translation, Wild Target, Paris Texas, Holy Smoke, Six Days Seven Nights. Sean Connery is 39 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. Jamie Bell in an interview about the film shows some insight; seeing older men and younger women in films is so common it has been normalised and until the same happens with older women, it will always cause a stir.
There are several secondary characters who are absolute gems; Julie Walters as Bella, Turner’s mother, Kenneth Cranham as Joe his father, Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame’s mother Jeanne McDougall. They are almost caricatures but gently and lovingly portrayed. Mildly distracting is the tendency in films set in the 70s and 80s, to dress all in cliched period clothing except the leads. It’s as if they can’t bear to have them look daggy and Jamie Bell is all contemporary cropped hair and minimalist urban clothes in contrast with his father’s patterned vest and his brother’s shaggy mop of hair. It was the same with Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower where her 80s style is 21st century pseudo retro chic.
Where this film succeeds is in giving heart to some characters who would otherwise be forgotten. Grahame was a star in the 40s and 50s, an Oscar winner who was typecast as the bad girl with a notoriety that spilled over into her private life and effectively ended her success. She kept acting, searching for that spotlight and the adulation of the public. Let’s hope she really did find some happiness and normalcy with Turner.
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