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How Annette Bening went from channeling Gloria Grahame in 'The Grifters' to playing her in 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. (Sony Pictures Classics)

If the deceptively soft and tender voice Annette Bening uses to play golden age screen siren Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool sounds familiar, you’re not hearing things. Bening used a version of that voice before, admittedly channeling Grahame for her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1990 favorite The Grifters.

Bening, known mostly as a stage performer at the time and fresh off her film debut in the 1988 comedy The Great Outdoors, was gearing up to play soft-spoken con artist Myra Langtry when director Stephen Frears suggested she steep herself in the world of Grahame, a midcentury star best known for her work as a femme fatale in film noir staples like Crossfire, The Bad and the Beautiful, and The Big Heat.

“He wanted to make a noir-esque movie, and he was very much thinking about that as he was preparing it,” Bening told Yahoo Entertainment. Bening consumed all the classic Grahame she could: The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, Sudden Fear. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was a great thing to [recommend]. It was so helpful as an actress. … It was really inspiring.”

Frears specifically recommended Bening tap into Grahame’s distinctive delivery. “He wanted me to have a lighter voice than my own,” she said. “You know, he wouldn’t say a lot, but he would say a few things like that, and they were enormously helpful.”

Annette Bening in The Grifters. (Miramax)

Coincidentally, just a few years earlier, British actor Peter Turner released the memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, about his May-December romance with Grahame in the years before her 1981 death. Producer Barbara Broccoli — best known for her and her family’s stewardship over the James Bond Cinematic Universe — was a friend of Turner’s and began the process of adapting the book into a film in the early ’90s. At the top of their list to play Grahame: Annette Bening.

“There’s this book, I read the book, we all talk about it, then there’s an iteration of the screenplay,” Bening recalled. “But it was just too soon. I’m too young, and I think, ‘Yeah, it’s just not right.’ And it could’ve been that she ended up making the film with someone else, but that didn’t happen.”

Maybe it was just meant to be. Broccoli and Bening remained friends over the years, and you can guess who was the first actress the producer called when she returned to the project nearly a quarter-century later. Last year Bening officially signed on to star opposite Jamie Bell (as Turner) in the film directed by Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Slevin).

Bening’s affecting performance in the film, which traces Grahame’s relationship with Turner from a disco-fueled meet-cute to her final cancer-stricken days, is winning Bening kudos, something the 59-year-old actress has made a habit of over the years.

One thing she has not done is win an elusive Academy Award, a feat accomplished by Grahame in 1953 for The Bad and the Beautiful. Bening, a four-time nominee (The Grifters, Being Julia, American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right), may be at the top of the list of deserving actors never to have taken home an Oscar.

“Well, I’m sure it would be nice,” said Bening, who missed out on a nomination last year for 20th Century Women and, despite the raves for Film Stars,  faces one of the most stacked Best Actress races in eons. “I’ve had that kind of floated around me so many times that I don’t have any illusions about it. On the other hand, would that be nice? Of course. I’m flattered that people say that.”

There’s plenty else in her life to keep Bening occupied, like the family she’s raised with husband Warren Beatty and the steady stream of strong roles that she continually lines up. “You know, I’m thinking about my next thing that I’m doing, and I’m excited about that. And I’ve got these amazing kids. I’ve got four kids that are between 17 and 25, and there’s that whole part of life. I’m lucky, because I know how things happen and don’t happen. I’ve been through it all.”

Like the time she waited 25 years to play Gloria Grahame.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is now playing.

Watch our Role Recall interview with Annette Bening:

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