Written by Matt Greenhalgh (117 pages)
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a romantic drama, based on the true story of onetime Hollywood star Gloria Grahame’s final days and final romance, with young actor Peter Turner. The book from which the script is based was written by Turner himself, and that offers a highly subjective, nostalgic quality to the script (which I found to be quite distracting).
The story follows a fairly conventional arc despite jumping back and forth between the past and present. In the past, Peter meets Gloria, and they develop a romantic relationship until she breaks up with him for reasons he can’t understand. In the present, a sickly Gloria enlists Peter and his family in taking care of her when she surprises them by showing up in their neck of the woods in England, a long ways away from America.
We learn that Gloria is dying and has known about it for sometime, though she remains in denial. It was her first learning about her cancer that caused her to lash out at Peter, thus ending their relationship a year or two earlier. Peter loves Gloria, and the choice he must make is to comfort her and live alongside her delusion (that everything will be fine) or to accept reality and contact her family who will (and do) take her back to America, away from him.
I’ve broken down the story into 8 sequences, following a fairly standard screenplay structure. I forget who advocates most strongly for this structure, whether it’s Robert McKee (“STORY”) or Blake Snyder (“Save the Cat”), but it’s the template I often use as a starting off point in my own writing and my understanding of others’ writing.
The first and final sequences take place entirely in the present, framing the story. From there every other sequence takes place mostly in the past, though they typically begin with a scene in the present, establishing the dramatic question of that portion of the script. For example, at the start of sequence 4, Peter has a present conversation with his father about the importance of contacting Gloria’s family and letting them know that she is sick (meaning Peter himself has to accept that she truly is sick). The rest of that sequence then takes place in the past, and we revisit a time when Peter met Gloria’s mother and sister in Los Angeles. He sees that they have a particularly strained relationship, and I took it to mean that this memory is the reason why he is reluctant to contact them about Gloria now (though parts of this sequence feel unnecessary narratively speaking).
A brief act and sequence breakdown of the script…
Act 1 = p. 1 – 24
- Sequence 1 = p. 1 – 13 (all in the present)
- Sequence 2 = p. 13 – 24 (past)
Act 2a = p. 25 – 57.5
- Sequence 3 = p. 25 – 43.5 (past)
- Sequence 4 = p. 43.5 – 57.5 (past)
Act 2b = p. 58 – 91.5
- Sequence 5 = p. 58 – 73.5 (all in the present)
- Sequence 6 = p. 74 – 91.5 (past, Peter’s POV)
Act 3 = 91.5 – 117
- Sequence 7 = p. 91.5 – 101.5 (replay of sequence 6, but from Gloria’s POV)
- Sequence 8 = p. 101.5 – 117 (all in the present)
In the first sequence we establish Gloria as an aging, accomplished theater actress. After a particularly rousing performance, she returns to her dressing room and collapses. That’s what we call a hook.
Then we meet Peter and his family, and it’s only at the end of this long scene that we see the connection to Gloria’s story.
So Peter already knows Gloria, slightly challenging our narrative expectations that they have yet to meet.
Peter goes to see Gloria, and it’s clear both that she’s not doing well and that they have a shared history. This sequence runs until page 13 when we dissolve into the past.
Sequence 2 introduces us to a more lively time in Peter’s and Gloria’s life and when they first met. They happened to be neighbors somewhere, him an aspiring young actor and her a famous actress no longer in the spotlight. We follow their budding romantic interest, and it seems to have less to do with strict romance and more to do with attention. He craves what she has, as if her fame has cast a spell on him, and she craves his attention. At least, that’s the vibe I got.
In sequence 3 we return to the present but only for half a page and three lines of dialogue, then we are right back to the past. The rest of the sequence takes Gloria and Peter from friendly, flirty acquaintances to lovers. It will end on page 43 with this…
So things are going well for our two main characters.
In Sequence 4 Peter will hang out in the present with his dad for about 4 pages, framing the way we view/read the flashback that makes up the rest of the sequence. Peter is having a hard time with Gloria’s illness, and his dad tells him, “she needs her family if she’s sick. She needs to be with her own…”
The subsequent flashback takes us to Los Angeles where the romance continues. Gloria and Peter are having a grand ‘ol time (“living the Hollywood dream” reads the scene description), the type of joy that is so exuberant that it must surely come to an end, and it does, kind of. Gloria introduces him to her mother and sister, Joy, and after the initial pleasantries wear off and a few glasses of wine have been consumed, they tell Peter about Gloria’s past… um, shortcomings.
See, Gloria had four ex-husbands, which Peter knew, but one of them was her step-son (Tony) from a previous marriage. Gloria’s sister implies not only that Gloria has a thing for younger men but that she got together with Tony when he was legally a child. Gloria is horrified by her family’s behavior, and Peter insists to her that he doesn’t care about those things because he loves her godammit.
What’s particularly frustrating about this is that it glosses over Gloria’s relationship with a child and makes the villain of the scene out to be her sister. The scene description will say, “Joy getting jealous,” in regards to the attention Gloria receives as a Hollywood star. Then it describes Joy getting drunker before she reveals this secret about Tony.
The sequence will end with Peter and Gloria on the beach, watching fish splash around as part of a mating ritual.
And I consider this to be the midpoint of the story, the highpoint of their romance, after the complications have been hinted at but before we see things get truly serious.
In sequence 5 things get a little more tense. Set entirely in the present, Peter learns from Gloria’s doctor that she is deathly sick, suffering from stomach cancer. In spite of this, Gloria tells Peter on page 62, “I can get better… if you help me, I know I can.”
Peter gets into a fight with his parents because he can’t accept that she’s dying (because he’s just so in love with her), but soon he will relent, admitting they are right. He is so distraught that he has to escape himself and her for a little while, returning to the stage to perform as part of his current, ongoing gig.
It’s before this sequence where another actor, angry that he’s late, doesn’t believe his story about Gloria and says the film’s title, “We all know film stars don’t die in Liverpool” (67). This makes us associate the title with someone’s disbelief at this whole story, setting up a bit of a ‘us against the world’ dynamic.
After the performance, Peter refuses to go home and instead goes to hang out at a casino and get drunk. There he runs into a cousin, Eileen, and he tells her about Gloria, her illness, etc. Eileen mentions a time she stayed with Peter and Gloria in New York, and just like that we transition into the next sequence.
Sequence 6 takes place entirely in the past, with Peter and Gloria in New York. They get a little more serious, making plans to move in together, and then at a hip party two of Gloria’s friends accuse Peter of hustling her. This reiterates the ‘us against the world’ idea, proving yet again that other characters either distrust Peter’s and Gloria’s motivations or deny it outright.
Early one morning Gloria disappears, saying it’s for a series of auditions, and when she returns she wants nothing to do with Peter. Eventually she kicks him out, and we’re led to believe they’ve broken up.
This is where much of the implied concerns become fully realized. The age difference, for example, has been brought up several times, and on page 90 Gloria tells Peter, “For god’s sakes Peter, I already got four kids. I don’t need five.”
The end of this sequence is Peter’s definite low point, and it draws to a close act 2 as a whole.
Act 3, and sequence 7, begin on page 91. After a brief scene bringing us back to the present and showing us that Gloria can hear Peter’s early morning argument with his family (following the previous night’s bender), we jump right back to the past, revisiting the New York sequence from before only this time from Gloria’s point of view.
Gloria wasn’t really going on any auditions, instead she saw her doctor and learned that she was dying. The cancer that she had endured before had returned, only now there was no saving her because she had refused to do chemo previously. Gloria must now reckon not only with her actual mortality but her own possible hand in it and the realization that life is passing her by.
So this sequence is meant to justify her anger towards Peter and show what was behind it. This doesn’t mean things end any better than before, only that we understand why they ended, not because of any real conflict between Peter and Gloria but just because she couldn’t handle that she was dying.
What I dislike about this aspect of the story is that, well I don’t much care for Peter’s and Gloria’s relationship. I have a hard time understanding why I should put them on a pedestal as we do most movie romances, and I don’t agree that we should give Gloria a pass just because she received some tough news. What this sequence tells me is that she was delusional in a Sunset Boulevard kind of way, but instead of having us regard her in a Norma Desmond manner, we’re asked to empathize with her, which I don’t.
The final sequence, number 8, takes place entirely in the present. Peter calls Gloria’s son, Tim, to tell him Gloria’s dying. Then he takes her around Liverpool and gives her a final day of wish fulfillment. The next day Tim arrives, and he wants to take Gloria back to America to see her doctor. Peter initially refuses to let her be taken away, believing that the trip will kill her, and because of the previous sequence we are now supposed to be rooting actively for these star-crossed lovers. But I wasn’t, so I had a hard time siding with Peter.
Gloria’s son Tim will try his best to be respectful to Peter but tell him, “With all due respect… you’re just an ex-boyfriend” and he’s absolutely right. Peter’s family will similarly tell Peter to stand down. This is Gloria’s son, and Peter is just an ex-boyfriend who claims to know what’s best for her.
Eventually Tim will take her away, and Peter has to accept that. The movie’s final catharsis comes in a scene when Peter’s brother, who he’s often at odds with, pulls him in for an embrace, understanding his pain. Then we’re told that Gloria died after she got back to New York, and the movie ends with footage of Gloria winning the Academy Award for her role in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful.
So this is a fine screenplay but one which turns a complicated, real-life figure into a Nicholas Sparks character. Gloria’s and Peter’s relationship is a little schmaltzy, and it glosses over a lot of the real controversy and, frankly, alluring appeal of their story in favor of turning them into star-crossed lovers that the real world just couldn’t understand.
I don’t buy it, and it frustrates me because reading about Gloria Grahame you begin to form a lot of your own questions, both about her past controversial relationships and about the nature of Hollywood and ageism as a whole. Her career has some overlap in nature with Judy Garland, both mistreated and cast out after their moment in the spotlight, and such a rise and fall seems integral to every female star’s story in Hollywood in the 40’s and 50’s. You can certainly add Marilyn Monroe to that list.
Their stories are almost always absurdly tragic, and they all died pretty young. All of Grahame, Garland and Monroe went through several marriages, and Garland and Monroe both died of barbiturate overdoses. Their most famous roles are iconic, and in that fame they live on forever as a version of their younger selves. But this ignores the grim culmination of their lives and careers. They were glorified, held on top, and then the industry killed them.
Gloria’s career is a little less dramatic, but she still fell victim to the Hollywood system, one which holds up the young and casts away the old, particularly with women and particularly in the 50s and 60s. It’s a sad story, and I can’t help but see that tragedy fueling her relationship with Peter and Tony as well.
There is something going on here, a sense of delusion fueled by years of enablement followed by the withdrawal of being forced out of Hollywood. There’s a definite Norma Desmond quality to Gloria Grahame in this movie, but Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool ignores it all.
And that thing about Tony… she apparently was caught with him in bed by her then husband Nicholas Ray who then divorced her. They are said to have gotten together when Tony was 13 before later reconnecting and getting married. This is disturbing, to be sure, but the movie just barely mentions it and moves on.
So this script is well-enough written, again really just if it were a Nicholas Sparks story, but it eliminates virtually all nuance and does a disservice to just about every character in the story. That’s to be expected, I suppose, when it is based on the book written by Peter himself. He surely sees things much differently than the rest of the world.
That isn’t to say we can’t try to empathize with and understand Peter and Gloria, but the story just insists we care for them rather than trying to make us care. They don’t seem to be symbolic of any bigger issue going on in the world, and as individual characters they can both be quite frustrating.
Up Next: Blind Chance (1987), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Predator (1987)