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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ but they don’t age well in Hollywood either

Annette Bening plays an exuberant Gloria Grahame and highlights a bias towards youth

Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, Bette Davis and Hugh Marlowe in 'All About Eve'. Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, Bette Davis and Hugh Marlowe in 'All About Eve'. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The ageing actress has always been depicted as one of the saddest figures in cinema. In a plethora of movies these ladies are shown as bitter and washed-up, clinging to memories of their youth long after the paparazzi has stopped taking pictures of them. Their past glories forgotten. ­Actresses like Gloria Grahame.

Grahame starred in classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Big Heat (1953) and Oklahoma! (1956) and even won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her exquisite work in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Yet hers is a name most of us have not heard of. Despite tasting the high life ­Grahame’s purple patch was fleeting, lasting a decade before casting agents started to postpone returning her calls.

The name recognition of ­Grahame may change now that Annette Bening is playing her in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the film adapted from Peter Turner’s memoir and directed by Paul McGuigan. The story details the May-December romance between the young English actor Turner and the Oscar winner that began in the 1970s in London, in the twilight of Grahame’s career.

Turner is played by Jamie Bell, who it seems will never be forgotten for playing Billie Elliot in the popular screen musical, and at first the film threatens to buck the trend of showing ageing actors as forlorn figures; from the start Grahame is seen as the object of Turner’s affection. She is exuberant, full of zest while Turner is more muted and less appealing.

Yet it’s not long before the film reverts to type, as it becomes clear that Grahame harks for her youth, and that’s not just because she’s now suffering from cancer. She reminisces over her glory days, and her attempts at landing a great role at the theatre are part of her efforts to reconnect with that past. Grahame died at 57, which is two years younger than Bening who is cast in the film, and makes the fact that she was long since forgotten by 1981 so galling.

The theatre is the primary location of All About Eve (1950), one of the most famous films about ageing actresses and how they are treated as commodities in their chosen workplace. Margot Channing, played by Bette Davis, has just turned 40 and knows that her star is on the wane even before playwrights, directors and journalists start fawning over a young twentysomething going by the name of Eve, who began as a besotted fan of Channing, standing outside a Broadway theatre waiting to catch glimpses of the actress performing in Aged in Wood.

All About Eve received 14 Oscar nominations and its classic status is only augmented by the recent revelations about sexual attacks in the film industry, which has led to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Joseph L Mankiewicz, its director, depicts actresses as replaceable and on a production line, helpless before the Svengalis calling the shots.

Even today, it seems that this is a woman’s lot in the film industry where women’s earning potential dram­atically reduces after the age of 34. A Journal of Management Inquiry report that looked at the earnings records of 265 ­actors and actresses in Hollywood between 1968 and 2008 found that women earn more than their male counterparts in their 20s, but then have a dramatic decline as men reach the apex of their earning at the age of 51. The report’s authors stated that it is indicative of an industry that values an actress based on their looks.

Mark Wahlberg, 46, just paid the US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) fee he received for shooting extra scenes in All The Money in the World to Time’s Up after it was revealed that his 37-year-old co-star, Michelle Williams, who is represented by the same agency, was paid $1,000 for the same shoot.

The social media outrage led to the actor having a social conscience over his extra earnings, which came about after it was decided to remove disgraced star Kevin Spacey from the picture.

Bette Davis played ageing actresses a number of times in her amazing career, most famously in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), in which life also imitated art as the two ageing stars Davis and Joan Crawford were as remorseless with each other as the two warring sisters they play fighting over the limelight. The off-screen shenanigans of the two actresses has been captured wonderfully in the FX television series Feud (2017), in which Jessica Lange plays Crawford and Susan Sarandon interprets Davis. Lange, herself, is an actress who has all but disappeared from our screens after winning an Oscar for Blue Sky at the age of 45 in 1995.

In David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014), Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading actress who is desperate to get cast in a movie ­remake of a film her deceased mother made decades previously. She is a neurotic, almost pathetic figure, yet Moore stated that the character is an amalgam of people she has known in the film world.

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To this list we can see similar stereotypes of ageing actresses in Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Postcards From the Edge (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). It’s not just Hollywood films, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Francois Truffaut’s magnificent Day for Night (1973) have also highlighted the plight of the ageing actress.

Some argue that things been already been changing in recent years with the continued appearances of Judi Dench, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren in a number of films. This has been attributed to audiences getting older. Yet this change is slow and these actresses remain unusual in a world where the story of Gloria Grahame is an all-too-familiar one.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is now showing at cinemas in the UAE