Film: A glorious decline

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Director: Paul McGuigan

Ingrid Goes West
Director: Matt Spicer

As Gloria Grahame, Annette Bening (pictured, with Jamie Bell) convincingly embodies a 1950s Hollywood screen siren washed up on the banks of the Mersey in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, the long-in-gestation screen adaptation of Peter Turner’s best-selling memoir, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh (Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll) and directed by Paul McGuigan (Gangster No 1, TVs Sherlock).

Bening nails Grahame’s fragile mousy voice and her desperate need to be young, to live without responsibility or regret. The harder role falls to Jamie Bell as Peter. He has to be captivated by Gloria and her connection to a world more glamorous than the provincial theatre that he is used to. Where Peter differed from Gloria’s other lovers is that he didn’t want anything from her other than her presence. When she appeared to drift away from him, his demands to acknowledge reality force her to throw him out.

McGuigan doesn’t do kitchen-sink realism, rather stylish transitions from 1981 to 1979. When we first meet Gloria, she has collapsed in her Leicester changing room on the eve of a performance of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menegerie.

As Peter is summoned to her hospital bed, the action shifts to their first meeting in a Belsize Park boarding house in North London. Gloria needs a “boogie oogie oogie” partner. Peter obliges and for the first time since his debut Billy Eliot, Bell dances on screen. I found myself briefly wondering why the ending of Billy Eliot could not be re-shot with Bell playing the adult Billy – the original ending in which he is replaced always struck me as a disappointment.

There isn’t much sexual chemistry between Bening and Bell, but you can see why Peter is in awe of Gloria and why she loves him. For the most part, we see Gloria entirely through Peter’s eyes, as he becomes the hanger-on that no one really sees, the Larry Fortensky to her Elizabeth Taylor.

The production design is mostly spot on, McGuigan sneaking in subliminal messaging in the form of political posters on the wall (“target greed capitalism”). Only when McGuigan shows exteriors, notablythe Muswell Hill Everyman reverse-engineered to the former Odeon, is it unconvincing; you wonder why Gloria and Peter didn’t watch Alien at the Hampstead Classic, since replaced by a branch of Marks and Spencer.

The film also marks the reunion between Bell and Julie Walters, who plays his mother. In a small role, Walters is terrific. She can wring a laugh out of the phrase “24-hour stopover in Manila”. As Peter’s brother, Stephen Graham sports an extremely unconvincing wig, which of itself provides some entertainment value.

The drama comes from Gloria insisting that she can recover in Peter’s family home in Liverpool and his family insisting that Gloria’s four children are notified of her ailing condition. The emotional impact comes from a double flashback as the couple’s last days are shown first from Peter’s perspective and then, in tight close up on Bening’s face, from Gloria’s.

Vanessa Redgrave appears in a pivotal scene as Gloria’s acting tutor mother, still ­devoted to theatre. Gloria’s sister (Frances Barber) reveals the depth of Gloria’s troubled psyche, sleeping with her own (13-year-old) stepson.

The film doesn’t resonate outside of its immediate story, but McGuigan uses stylistic tricks – including back projection that suddenly catches fire and burns out – to illustrate Gloria’s decline and, with it, that of old ­Hollywood. The clip at the end of the film, of Gloria picking up her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in breathless style, catches in the throat, as Bob Hope quips: “She made it”.

In social media, anyone can be a star. Your life simply has to be something that others aspire to. With “promotional consideration” discretely hidden from view (free movie tickets, meals, and so on), you can be the person that others vicariously live through, whose tastes and opinions matter. Of course, anyone who tweets more than 50 times a day isn’t real; they are an algorithm employed by a corporation. On Twitter, green ticks are proof of life. Those without it are second-class digital citizens.

The problem with social media celebrities is that most of us know they are phoney. No one is that boundlessly enthusiastic about a random series of subjects. “Beauty secrets” are paid for by cosmetic companies. That ­holiday they said was so great – it was a freebie.

So, for me, the premise of co-writer-director Matt Spicer’s comedy, Ingrid Goes West, rears up at the first hurdle. We know what discovery the title character, a social media stalker played by Aubrey Plaza, will make.

Essentially, the film is a social-media-­adjusted cousin of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film, The King of Comedy. That film’s plot, in which a would-be comedian, Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) kidnaps a talk show host (Jerry Lewis) in order to get a guest shot on his show, also precludes laughter. Moreover, Scorsese and Spicer arrive at the same ending.

After some Insta-shaming at a wedding, the socially-ostracised Ingrid becomes obsessed with a West Coast social media celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) who has a large following. Using her inheritance from her late mother, Ingrid moves to Los Angeles and becomes Taylor’s new best friend, feigning an interest in her boyfriend’s lousy art. Ingrid has to create a virtual life to fit in with Taylor, including getting her would-be screenwriter landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr), who is obsessed with Batman, to act as her boyfriend. Things go more or less to plan until the waster brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen) shows up.

Plaza is a one-of-a-kind comedy actress, whose intense stare is like the headlights of a car zigzagging across motorway lanes without any regard to other vehicles. She would be great at playing Lady Macbeth, except in her version she would go for the throne herself. Plaza never lets us sees what is behind her character’s bravado; to do so would be an admission of guilt. Yet she appears to derive no pleasure from anything she does, even when as Ingrid, she seeks others’ approval.

Her presence isn’t enough to make Ingrid Goes West worth seeing. Ingrid’s ambition is so limited, we neither laugh with, at or next to her. As a satire of social media celebrities and virtual lifestyles, the film makes its point succinctly; this doesn’t sustain its running time.
Of the supporting cast, Jackson Jr (the spitting image of his father, the rapper Ice Cube) comes out best; he’s a great foil for the hostile Plaza. You want to read Dan’s Batman script; it could be the most genuine expression of art that anyone makes in the film.

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.