We, fortunate classic movie fans, rarely get to experience what it is like to closely witness the final days of the big Hollywood stars we admire. Thank heavens, you say, and you’d be right.
Perhaps an exception to this that proves the rule is Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, an unusual memoir about the pathetic last days of one of our favorite actresses, Gloria Grahame. She died of stomach cancer at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York in 1981 at the relatively early age of 57.
Film Stars Don’t Die..., first published in England five years after Grahame’s death and republished two years ago, was written by British former actor Peter Turner, who lived with his large family in the city of Liverpool, the northwest maritime city — the fifth largest in England — that had seen better days. (The title of the book come from a remark made by the scornful stage manager of a local theater company when Turner explains he is helping take care of moribund Grahame.)
The actress had come to England in 1978 to play Sadie Thompson in a theater production of Somerset Maugham’s play, Rain.
She shunned (she couldn’t afford) luxury hotel accommodation in favor of a comfortable a Primrose Hill house that also accommodated struggling actors. One was Turner who bumped into Grahame in a hallway when she asked if she could borrow one of his shirts to temporarily replace one that was in the laundry.
A close friendship, and eventually an affair, had begun. What made the couple unusual was their age difference — almost 30 years — and the fact that Turner’s sexuality was, as he wrote, fluid. But there was no heavy ‘gay or straight’ conversations because there was no need.
In the ensuing years, Grahame and Turner traveled in England and in the U.S. together. A falling out in New York started the unraveling of the romance. It was not until much later, after Grahame back in England had collapsed during the rehearsals of a play, that she telephoned Turner in Liverpool pretty much out of the blue. She had developed a friendship of sorts with Turner’s warm and large family, and liked Liverpool. So she wound up staying with the Turners at their modest residence until, literally, the say she died. On that day, she was flown in a makeshift wheelchair from England to New York, and expired a few hours after landing.
The Turners had taken loving care of Grahame, who flatly refused to go to a hospital. Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a grim chronicle of a stubborn patient on the verge of death. It is nonetheless an affectionate and informative coda to what was a loving memory.
The book was made into a movie of the same title two years ago, and was shot largely in Liverpool. Annette Bening (pictured below) plays Gloria; British actor Jamie Bell plays Turner. If you missed the movie, you are not alone; it did disappointing business at the box office.
Grahame married four times, but her final affair with Turner is rarely if ever mentioned.
Not only did she see her share of Oscar action, but she was celebrated by the tabloids of the time for her tempestuous personal life, which was strange even by Hollywood standards. She was a great onscreen sulker, she could play sexy, smart-mouthed women better than anyone.
Grahame was justifiably renowned for her onscreen sultriness, her ability to telegraph unadulterated lust to audiences of the Forties and Fifties. But she was no bimbo. Grahame often played well grounded women betrayed by boneheaded choices in men. One of whom is the violent gangster played Lee Marvin in 1953’s The Big Heat — and yes, Marvin is shown tossing scalding hot coffee in her face. (There’s the happy couple shown at the top of this blog.)
‘Film stars may not die in Liverpool’ but Gloria Grahame did.