Last tango in Liver­pool

She starred along­side Humphrey Bog­art and James Ste­wart. But Glo­ria Gra­hame re­fused to bow to Hol­ly­wood sex­ism and was driven out. Frank Cot­trell-boyce on a new film about how she found love and a sec­ond life with a big chaotic fam­ily in Liver­pool

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

In the late 1970s, Peter Turner was a young ac­tor liv­ing in digs in Prim­rose Hill. One of his fel­low lodgers in the Lon­don flat was Glo­ria Gra­hame – you know, the girl who couldn’t say no in Ok­la­homa!, the way­ward small-town floozy in It’s a Won­der­ful Life.

By the time she met Peter, she was play­ing Sadie in a pro­duc­tion of Som­er­set Maugham’s Rain at the Wat­ford Palace. “She asked to bor­row a shirt,” he says. “Then she needed a fiver. It es­ca­lated from there.” The cou­ple be­gan an on-off af­fair that seemed to dwin­dle to noth­ing – un­til late 1981. “Tues­day 29 Septem­ber,” says Peter, em­bark­ing on a tale he’s told so of­ten it has be­come a kind of rit­ual. “I knew she was in Eng­land, but she hadn’t called.”

But then she did call, to ask if she could stay – and, as it turns out, die – at his par­ents’ house in Liver­pool.

The im­age of a Hol­ly­wood le­gend breath­ing her last in a tough, ri­o­tracked north­ern port is so sur­pris­ing, so cam­era-ready, that when Peter wrote his poignant, thought­ful mem­oir, he was be­sieged by of­fers. When he lists some of the ac­tors who wanted to play Glo­ria, it tells you all you need to know about how long it has taken – 35 years – for the story to reach the screen, and how many startlingly dif­fer­ent forms it could have taken. He starts with Joan Collins, then men­tions Whoopi Gold­berg, Madonna and Bar­bara Her­shey be­fore fi­nally reach­ing An­nette Ben­ing. Jamie Bell – who plays Peter along­side Ben­ing in the forth­com­ing film – wasn’t even born when David Put­tnam first op­tioned the story.

The book, when it was first pub­lished, was about a re­cent mem­ory.

The film is now a pe­riod piece, the bat­tered Liver­pool it por­trays hav­ing all but van­ished. As if to em­pha­sise the point, we are speak­ing in the Pen Fac­tory, an el­e­gant bar and bistro in the city. “Thirty years ago,” says Peter, “we didn’t have DVDS, let alone Youtube.” Peter had to trust his par­ents for an ac­count of his LA girl­friend’s glory days – and wait for an art-house ret­ro­spec­tive. This is one of my favourite mo­ments in the film: the crys­talline beauty of the ac­tual black-and-white Cine­mas­cope Glo­ria, peer­ing from un­der her hooded eyes into the shad­owy warmth of a present-day pic­ture house.

I’m in­ter­ested in how Peter man­aged to keep faith in the project dur­ing the years when, as he says, “It re­fused to get made”, al­most as if “Glo­ria wouldn’t have it”. What really kept him go­ing, of course, was love, the need to do jus­tice to Glo­ria. Be­cause,

yes, the city has changed and the na­ture of fame has changed, but one thing hasn’t: how fe­male stars are treated. Glo­ria was of­fered the lead in the 1950 film Born Yes­ter­day.

“But,” says Peter, “she wouldn’t ride un­ac­com­pa­nied in the limo with the then head of RKO, Howard Hughes.” So she was thrown aside.

The star was also bul­lied into hav­ing work done on her face and, dur­ing her di­vorces, highly paid in­dus­try lawyers spread hideous sto­ries about her that tame show­biz correspondents made sure stuck. If you watch her work now, you can see an ac­com­plished ac­tor do­ing pre­cise, ef­fec­tive, self-ef­fac­ing work. “The only bi­og­ra­phy of her is called Sui­cide Blonde,” says Peter.

“As if that was her. As if she was one of her char­ac­ters.”

In the shadow of Har­vey We­in­stein, the case of Glo­ria Gra­hame – chewed up and spat out by the stu­dios – could not be more rel­e­vant. But the film gets its un­usual power from the fact that it has some­thing to of­fer in place of fame and sex­ual op­pres­sion. In other hands, this could have been a cheery Bri­tish farce about the odd-cou­ple pair­ing of a work­ing-class lad and Hol­ly­wood roy­alty. “Andy Capp and Mrs Mopp” is how Peter char­ac­terises such a take.

But screen­writer Matt Green­halgh and di­rec­tor Paul Mcguigan make the film as much about Peter’s fam­ily as about the lovers. Glo­ria’s death in­volves them all, from Mum and Dad’s once-in-a-life­time trip to Aus­tralia be­ing dis­rupted, to older brother Joe’s heroic high-speed mercy dash. The book also has pages of funny, anx­ious cross-di­a­logue about whether to call the doc­tor and when to call the priest as the whole fam­ily – Peter is one of nine chil­dren – ral­lies round. Green­halgh ten­derly pre­serves all this, while grant­ing us the un­ex­pected plea­sure of watch­ing Bell dance again.

Bri­tish films of­ten present fam­ily as the thing you have to es­cape if you want to ful­fil your­self. Billy Liar is a good ex­am­ple, even if he doesn’t, in the end, get on that train to Lon­don. But here, the fam­ily is a vor­tex of tol­er­ance and un­der­stand­ing.

Peter and Glo­ria’s re­la­tion­ship is lop­sided, age in­ap­pro­pri­ate and sex­u­ally con­fus­ing. She was a brit­tle, de­mand­ing woman. But none of that is dis­cussed. They all just get on and do the de­cent thing.

And in the end, that’s what this film is about: com­mon de­cency. The de­cency to refuse to let some­one die alone. The de­cency that makes us great by in­sist­ing that we meet the chal­lenge set by the needs of oth­ers. The de­cency that al­lows us to put each other back to­gether when power has crushed us. The de­cency that is al­to­gether lack­ing in pub­lic life. The de­cency that sel­dom ap­pears in films and TV pro­grammes about work­ing-class life but is pretty much all that makes those lives pos­si­ble.

In 1974, Glo­ria had been di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. She had ra­di­a­tion treat­ment, changed her diet, stopped smok­ing and drink­ing, and the can­cer went into re­mis­sion, only to re­turn in 1980. Peter’s book doesn’t men­tion breast can­cer and in it Glo­ria

seems to have no idea that she’s go­ing to die. Does he think it was an act? “I think she had a bucket list,” says Peter, who has ob­vi­ously thought about this a great deal. “And do­ing good work on the Bri­tish stage – to join the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany – was part of that. Her mother had been in Shake­speare on the Lon­don stage in about 1910. She had her own drama school, which was all about clear dic­tion and so on. Glo­ria had a com­plete Shake­speare col­lec­tion in that room in Prim­rose Hill.”

Maybe that last fling with a young ac­tor had some­thing of the bucket list about it, as did ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life at the heart of a big, chaotic fam­ily. For three decades, Peter has been keeper of the flame. When the film comes out, that will change. Af­ter this, when peo­ple think of Glo­ria Gra­hame, the story of how she died in Liver­pool will be one of the first things that will come to mind – but it will be a story that stars Jamie Bell, not Peter Turner. I worry that it’s go­ing to be hard for him.

“I just want peo­ple to re­mem­ber her,” he says. They will. And there’s a chance Glo­ria’s story will be­come short­hand for ev­ery fe­male ac­tor who tried to put her­self back to­gether af­ter be­ing torn apart by Hol­ly­wood.

“I’ll tell you what was really on her bucket list,” I say.



It ought to be a ba­sic hu­man right. How sad that it should be­come a woman’s am­bi­tion – like swim­ming with dolphins or climb­ing the Eiger. “I think she wanted to know what it was like to be re­spected,” I say. “I think you gave her that.”

“Yeah,” says Peter. “Maybe.

I hope so.”

‘The only bi­og­ra­phy of her is called Sui­cide Blonde – as if she was one of her char­ac­ters’

Ben­ing … An­nette the mak­ing Die in 35 years in Stars Don’t

Bell in Film with and Jamie Gra­hame below , Glo­ria

Liver­pool; Ok­la­homa! in 1955’s

Gor­don Macrae

Crys­talline beauty … Gra­hame and Humphrey Bog­art in 1950’s In a Lonely Place; below, with James Ste­wart in

It’s a Won­der­ful Life, from 1946

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