Paul McGuigan's persuasive, brilliantly acted Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool confirms that the movie business is a cruel mistress. The picture, based on a memoir by Peter Turner, concerns the last years of the charismatic, eccentric Gloria Grahame. By the late 1970s, the Oscar-winning star of The Bad and the Beautiful and Oklahoma!, played here by Annette Bening, was scratching a living in British regional theatre. The young Turner, still a jobbing actor, became a friend, lover and confidante.
Jamie Bell, who plays Turner with open-hearted sincerity, has already faced up to his own professional challenges. Seventeen years ago (no, really) he was plucked from obscurity to play the title role in Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot. Many initially promising child stars have fallen by the wayside.
“I think Stephen then paired me with good people,” he says. “He pushed me towards people who didn’t have ulterior motives, people who were career-focused and not after a quick buck. I was pushed in that direction without knowing it. I have been grateful to work with those people ever since.”
That ties in with the legend. By all accounts, Daldry took personal responsibility for Bell. He made sure the sharks were kept away. Knowing what we now know (and always suspected) about the business, that protection and guidance must have been invaluable. Bell went on to star in Peter Jackson's King Kong, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin.
“That more than anything has helped me – having people around me who are more concerned with me as a person than a commodity,” he says. “I was a relative newcomer. I knew so little of the industry and how it worked. But these people knew all this stuff. I had to listen to them and watch these movies. I had to learn what this industry was. Who’s Martin Scorsese? Ha ha.”
For those past 17 years he has had to explain that Billy Elliot didn't exactly tell his own life story. Yes, he was from a working-class family in Durham. True, he took dancing lessons. But we shouldn't get carried away.
“A boy from the northeast of England? Check. Was a dancer? Check,” he says. “But that’s about as far as it goes. Some of the bits and pieces are there. I was never from a coal-mining family. My family were from humble working-class origins. But it wasn’t as turbulent as that family was. The notions of a kid escaping the trappings of his working-class town and its expectations of him? You can draw comparisons with that.”
Bell is swathed in an enormously relaxed ambience. His accent unaltered by the years in Los Angeles, he is open about his ambitions, but, as you might expect from a Durham man, he never gives in to pretension or preciousness.
We should remember how popular Billy Elliot was. The picture secured three Oscar nominations and went on to inspire a long-running musical (Tom Holland, the current Spider-Man, emerged from that show). But, as Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool shows, there are no guarantees in this life.
“There is no guarantee in acting,” he agrees. “You are not going to get a job because you just made a good movie. Acting is a job where you have to be always changing, always moving. You have to get back up again after you make a film that doesn’t work. You have to come back and make another one. It’s a very difficult business if you feel entitled.”
Bell spent a while in New York city and then moved westwards. Los Angeles is, of course, among the most cosmopolitan places on Earth. But I still find it hard to imagine Jamie Bell as a resident. He’s so northern. He’s so lacking in bling. That’s my problem, I suppose.
“This may sound weird but honestly I miss the rain,” he says. “LA is famous for having no seasons. I like a bit of something going on in the weather. I have friends from England and they hate the rain. ‘But isn’t it a bit of contrast from what’s normally going on?’ I’ll say.”
His personal life has been eventful. He had a complex relationship with Evan Rachel Wood, most recently seen in Westworld, for the guts of a decade. They got together in 2005 and split up a year later. In 2012 they reconciled, married and, in 2013, they had a son. The marriage broke up in 2014. Earlier this year, Bell married the actor Kate Mara.
I wonder if he wants to tell us about that. “We were married in July in Los Angeles. It was a very small deal. It was good,” he says in tone that, although polite, invites no further questions.
Of course, the downside to success is that some part of you becomes public property. Bell has not had to live in the same soap opera that surrounds Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise. But his relationships have attracted the attention of entertainment journalists. Was he prepared for that trade-off?
“I don’t know if it’s a downside. These are the people who buy tickets to the movies you make,” he says. “I have friends who have it way worse. I’ll be at the checkout in the grocery store and I’ll see something in a tabloid about a friend. That’s very intrusive. I am happy to live in relative anonymity.”
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool nags away at a few of those questions. Bening's version of Grahame lives in the half-lit penumbra of her own celebrity after she has been cast adrift from Hollywood. Over the past few weeks we have been chewing over the fetid underbelly of the business. But the film does, maybe, remind us that some things have got better. By the early 1970s, few of the female stars from Grahame's era were still in the conversation. Yet they were barely middle-aged. The likes of Janet Leigh and Anne Baxter were playing killers on Columbo. Giants such as Bette Davis were taking guest roles in The Virginian.
You could not reasonably argue that a similar fate has befallen Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep – the last of those actors being Oscar-nominated almost annually in her 60s.
“It’s so difficult to me to comment on what the situation is for women in Hollywood,” Bell says. “It would be insensitive for me to describe that situation. But I hope we are moving in a better situation for women in general in the industry, but also specifically for women in general.”
This year's awards season already seems to be offering us good news in that area. "This is a great year for that," he agrees. "Frances McDormand in Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri]? I hear Laurie Metcalf is great in Lady Bird. There are just these fantastic actresses who are a little bit older than the crowd. They should be celebrated."
Among those requiring celebration is Julie Walters. The much-admired Brummie played Bell's mum in Billy Elliot and she is back in the same role for Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Given how busy they both are, it comes as a surprise to discover they have not worked together since.
“That really was the first time since,” he says. “I was incredibly naive when I first worked with her. I really didn’t know how revered she was. I was overwhelmed meeting her as a kid. She might have been the most famous person I’d met. She can still make everyone laugh and then go straight into a scene.”
She now sees Bell truck impressively into his 30s. Hollywood will find a place for such rugged charm. The nasty business isn’t going to cast him aside. Right?
“I have to trust in people’s decisions and also trust my own instincts, he says, and then sighs. “But I am still concerned that it won’t work out. Ha ha.”
FIVE GLORIA GRAHAME ROLES
Grahame, born in 1923 and possessed of a distinctive, flexible voice, was one of the great female stars of the noir era. She was often tough, usually “the bad girl”, and was cruelly cast aside when the 1960s loomed.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Her role as Violet Bick, a harder nut than George Bailey, is small but significant.
A terrific noir for RKO that touches on anti-Semitism. Grahame got her first Oscar nomination as the witness to a murder.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Kirk Douglas stars in one of the best, most cynical films ever made about the movie business. Grahame's turn as a woman who has her head turned by fame secured her the Oscar.
The Big Heat (1953)
Yes, this was the brutal Fritz Lang noir that saw Lee Marvin throw a pot of boiling coffee in Grahame's face. Still searing.
Gloria is typecast again as the Trouble Girl. She does, nonetheless, get to sing one of the musical's best songs: I Can't Say No. What else?