Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Movie) written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir by Peter
Turner; directed by Paul McGuigan; starring Annette Benning, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave
In a recent review, I was lamenting the bombast of current movies and pining for some of the quietly charming movies of
the kind we used to get from Ealing studios. Well, here’s one that beautifully fits that description.
It’s the true story – based on Peter Turner’s memoir – of his affair with Gloria Grahame, who won
an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1952. The movie catches up with her nearly thirty years later when her career
is on a precipitous downhill slope. While working in theatre in England, she becomes seriously ill. Peter, a much younger
actor who happens to be her boyfriend, takes her to his family home where his parents, thrilled to have an actual movie star
under their roof, want to look after her.
The movie turns on two dramatic pivots. The first one is that Gloria doesn’t want to admit that she’s seriously
ill, in spite of many signs to the contrary. That’s not an unusual premise for a drama but the other one is something
that I haven’t seen dramatized often: the patient doesn’t want her family to be informed about her condition.
Gloria, trying to insist that she’s getting better, refuses to let the Turners contact her family back in the US; Peter’s
family feels that isn’t right and they’re having a crisis of conscience about what they should do.
(The real life complications of Gloria’s marriages and the rather messy life behind her are glossed over. But that’s
okay, isn’t it, in a movie that wants to tell a poignat little story about something that happened to somebody whose
past may have been rather lurid?)
Annette Benning is perfect as the ageing actress who’s buoyed up by the attentions of this younger man. Under his
rapt gaze, she blossoms and almost becomes her youthful self again. If, however, someone inadvertently happens to remind her
of her real age, she can suddenly turn into something of a termagant. Jamie Bell, in the role of Peter, has the harder job
of convincing us that he is truly in love with this older woman. Not a very expressive actor, he goes through most of the
movie with pretty much of a deadpan look on his face. Maybe he – and the director – felt that was a safer choice
than trying to show Peter as head-over-heels in love, but I can’t help wondering what the movie might have been like
if we’d had a bit more of a sense of his being carried away.
At first, I was afraid that this was going to be pure soap opera. Some elements seem to belong to that genre. There are
some clichés, for instance, such as the crusty mum (Julie Walters) who turns out to have
a heart of gold. But the movie won me over with its skillful artistry – such as the adroit handling of the flashbacks
that are necessary to show how Gloria and Peter met and fell in love. Someone will simply walk though a door, say, and suddenly
we are in another place some years earlier. I also appreciated the fact that Peter’s family doesn’t make any to-do
about their son’s relationship with this older woman. No questions asked; they simply accept her as his friend and,
therefore, someone they must help. One of the movie’s most ingenious tactics is that a scene is sometimes shown from
two different points of view. That leads us to discover that what’s really happening isn’t at all what we thought
on first seeing the scenario.
And speaking of artistic touches, there’s the delicious cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother. What
you might call an added benefit is the black and white clip at the end that appears to show the real Gloria actually receiving
her Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1952 with none other than a young-ish Bob Hope presiding.
Secrets of My Life (Memoir) by Caitlyn Jenner, 2017
I don’t think of myself as a person who craves celebrity gossip. (Maybe that’s because I don’t crave
celebrity gossip.) Then why read this book? For salacious detail? Well, a reader can’t absolutely rule out that motivation.
But I think my main reason in this case was the search for insight: I wanted to see if Ms. Jenner’s story could help
me to better understand why someone would do what she has done.
But first, a point of word usage. In an attempt at coherence, I will refer to the author in the pre-transition period as
Bruce, with the consequent male pronoun, and in the post-transition period as Caitlyn or Ms. Jenner, with the female pronoun.
That’s not a violation of the author’s identity. After all, Caitlyn looks back on Bruce as a real person and appreciates
his accomplishments as such. "Bruce was not a lie," she says. "Bruce existed: what I did lie about or obfuscate was Caitlyn’s
Regarding her transition from male to female, Ms. Jenner is completely candid and honest, but her situation is still somewhat
puzzling. Take her declaration that transitioning "has nothing to do with your sexual preference and everything to do with
the gender that is embedded within you from birth regardless of your physical characteristics." She says that she was never
sexually attracted to men, only women. (And yet, she says, Bruce’s sex life with women was nowhere near as studly as
people might have expected from an Olympic hero.) Caitlyn also says that while growing up "I never felt feminine, but I did
identify as female." What that means, I cannot grasp. I guess you just have to take Caitlyn’s word for it when she says
that God made Bruce handsome, athletic, smart and articulate but then threw in a curveball to see how Bruce could handle it:
"He gave me the soul of a female."
It seems that the woman in Bruce asserted herself mainly in a fondness for women’s clothes. First, he was ransacking
the closets of his sister and his mother for private dressing-up sessions. After his Olympic win, he would be standing before
big audiences, giving motivational speeches about seizing your dream and living up to your potential, but meanwhile he was
wearing a bra and panties under his male apparel. Afterwards in his hotel, he’d don full female gear, including wig
and heels, then traipse around town to see how it felt.
Some people might think that a person’s sense of his or her sexual identity would stem, to some degree, from the
way the person is perceived by the surrounding world. Not so, in Bruce’s case. Hardly anybody could have been regarded
as a bigger male hero than Bruce. He was hailed as the ultimate male champion, the paragon of male achievement. But it appears
that the jock culture felt rather phony to Bruce. Caitlyn spends a few pages in the book deploring the kind of masculinity
paraded by someone like O.J. Simpson. (Bruce’s third wife, Kris Kardashian, was a friend of O.J.’s wife, Nicole,
and it was Kris’s ex-husband who defended O.J. in his trial for the murder of Nicole.) As two athletic superstars with
social connections, Bruce and O.J. were often thrown together but the connection was barely tolerable to Bruce. O.J. was a
bragging, blustering brand of masculinity that Bruce found repugnant.
In any case, Ms. Jenner points out, Bruce’s own athletic prowess didn’t mean much in the long run – as
far as the media were concerned. "The media loves you until they hate you. They elevate, then denigrate. They fixate, then
grow bored. They make you larger than life, then smaller than life." By the mid 1980s, the public – as represented by
the media – was glad to see him gone. "Live by celebrity. Die by it."
But come Bruce’s transition period, the media latched onto a new story. Caitlyn says it felt like "being a piñata for the media." When the tabloids were hounding him like dogs after a fox, he thought about
the gun in the house. Why not use it on himself to end the agony? But then came this insight:
I realize that suicide is never the answer, although I can see how a trans person, in the heat of despair, could be driven
to it. For all my pain, I have had a life that has been inspiring and positive to others. I have had every possible creature
comfort. I don’t want to end it. I don’t want to put my kids through something like that.
It was in March of 2015 that Bruce definitely became Caitlyn. Her new birth certificate brought tears of joy, yet tears
of sadness for the end of Bruce. It seems that her relationships with her children continue in a somewhat variable pattern.
Mostly, they were supportive at first; since then there seems to have been some pulling back by some of them. But Ms. Jenner
fully sympathizes with any problems the transition might have caused those who are close to her.
About her new status, Ms. Jenner says something that might surprise some people but the honesty and accuracy of it are
admirable: "I am firmly on the side of womanhood. But I am not a woman. Nor will I ever be." She goes on to say: "I am a trans
woman. There is a difference."
About trans people in general Ms. Jenner says:
We have radically changed, but we still retain many of our core beliefs, or at least I have. I am different
than I was. I feel different and I look different, but I am not as different in personality as is sometimes
Ms. Jenner acknowledges that her attempts to speak up on behalf of trans people haven’t always been welcomed. But
she feels no malice towards protestors who dismiss her as a "clueless rich white woman." Recognizing that many trans women
have been victims of abuse, violence, unemployment, even murder, Ms. Jenner says "I continue to raise money for the trans
community because I have the platform to do so."
Ms. Jenner gives full credit to writer Buzz Bissinger for pulling together her meandering recollections. The result is
a brisk, easily readable book with clear, concise prose. Mr. Bissinger even manages to inject some suspence into the story
at the point where, because the tabloids are hassling Bruce so much, he’s coming to the decision that he’s going
to have to tell his manager, his lawyer and his PR person about his upcoming transition.
I don’t feel, though, that the subject’s personality comes through in the book. Ms. Jenner says a few times
that humour is one of her favourite ways of deflecting any conflict but there are few traces of that trait in the book. One
of them has to do with the famous Vanity Fair cover of Ms. Jenner shot by Annie Leibowitz. Describing the set-up for
the shoot, Ms. Jenner says that Jessica Diehl, VF’s fashion and style director, "thinks I have the look of a
1980s Amazonian model with a slender frame, which is what I may want carved on my tombstone, along with a quote from Diehl
saying I look perfect in Tom Ford."
One of Ms. Jenner’s best touches of humour comes in this tribute to Mr. Bissinger:
He can be a little moody (actually very moody). He can be a little snappish (actually very snappish). But if you can get
past the black leather and the skull rings and the black-polished fingernails, he is warm and funny.
We do learn a few details about Ms. Jenner as a person, apart from the gender issue. She likes expensive toys – Porsches
and planes – but doesn’t care much about money. By the standards of her Malibu neighbourhood, Ms. Jenner’s
house could almost be considered a shack, she says. She’s cool with the basic amenities: the water runs, the toilet
works, there are no leaks. She has simple tastes in food and avoids the kinds of places celebrities patronize in order to
be seen."I prefer to be in places not to be seen and think McDonald’s approaches haute cusine, depending on how crispy
the fries are." In other restaurants, Ms. Jenner says, she always has meatloaf and mashed potatoes if that meal is available.
Those tidbits help us to get some sense of Ms. Jenner’s life in the world but much of the book seems to be taking
place in her head. It’s mostly about her thoughts and ideas on the subject of gender. You don’t get the impression
that she’s a natural story-teller. The book lacks the novelistic elements – such as settings, atmosphere and dialogue
– that would help you to feel immersed in a character’s everyday life. The message that comes through clearest,
perhaps, is that human beings can be pretty darn complicated. Most of us try to hide how complicated we are. It takes someone
like Ms. Jenner to remind us of the fact.
Stay Down and Take It (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus, The New Yorker, May 28, 2018
A couple who are apparently in late middle-age are driving inland to try to escape a huge storm that is threatening the
island they live on. They take a pass on a shelter that has been set up in a high school gymnasium with hundreds of cots arranged
in a grid. Driving on, they find that none of the hotels within range are answering their phones. Meanwhile, the storm is
beginning to lash their car.
It’s hard to say whether or not I like this story. What I can truly attest to is that it’s astounding. The
story, told from the wife’s point of view, is mainly a collection of the irritations that have been building up in her
in these many years of marriage. She’s nearly driven mad, we realize, by her husband’s foibles and by her duty,
as wife, to be tolerant of them, kind and patient with him. The resulting description of the woman’s mind and her behaviour
brandishes a searing honesty that feels something like a combination of Edward Albee, August Strindberg and Samuel Beckett.
Perhaps what makes the story so striking is the banality and ordinariness of the woman’s gripes as set within the cataclysmic
meteorological event that’s happening.
Is there any uplift in the end? Any concession to the conventional coziness and affection that we expect in any writing
about marriage? Read it yourself and see what you think.