(Spoiler alert—I can’t write about my experience of the film without giving away the key plot points.)
Last night Bob and I watched Film Stars don’t Die in Liverpool. From the preview, we knew it was an older woman/younger man romance, but we had no idea it was also a cancer story.
It was another reminder that cancer changes everything—or at least your mindset. I didn’t feel like I was watching unlikely things happening to other people—I felt like I was watching all too real things happening to people like Bob and me.
This, even though the story was about an aging movie star (Gloria Graham) and her romantic relationship with a man thirty years younger, (Peter Turner). Bob and I are two years apart and have exactly zero screen credits between us. But the actress (played by Annette Bening) has breast cancer, so that made it about us.
The movie opens in 1981 (its present time) but alternates with the past, 1979, when the two met and became romantically involved. We know right away that Gloria is ill, but in denial. We also know the two are no longer a couple. Gloria has a role in a local (Liverpool) production, at least until she collapses, and calls on Peter to come get her.
When we flash back to 1979, we’re clued in that Gloria has cancer when Peter sees a scar on her breast. He doesn’t ask her about it.
Later, the couple visits New York and Peter wakes up alone to find a note that Gloria is having breakfast with her agent. When she comes back much later in the day, he suspects she’s seeing someone else. They argue. She throws him out. End of relationship.
Until 1981, when she returns to Liverpool. After her collapse, she’s given a room in Peter’s mother’s home, and takes to bed, refusing medical care. We learn Gloria has kept her cancer a secret from everyone except her doctors. If Peter makes any connection to the scar he observed, he doesn’t let on. But knowing something is wrong, he borrows her address book and phones her doctor. Watching Peter’s face contort, we see two things: he still loves her and she’s going to die.
Bob and I are watching in bed, snuggled up together. He nuzzles my ear. “I would never withhold anything from you.”
“No, I wouldn’t either,” I tell him. We can’t help but recognize our story in theirs.
The movie returns to the New York scene in 1979, this time from Gloria’s perspective. We witness her meeting with her doctor. He tells her the cancer has returned.
“You should have done chemo,” he says.
She protests. She did radiation. That killed it. And she couldn’t do chemo, she couldn’t lose her hair. She needed to work. She couldn’t work without hair. People would find out—directors, producers.
I’m thinking, I’m glad I did chemo. And then Bob says it, adding, “It was hard, but I’m glad you did it.”
As her condition worsens, Gloria relents on telling her family. Her son arrives in Liverpool, to fly her to New York, to her doctor. As Peter and her son carry Gloria to the taxi, Bob protests, “No, he has to go with her!” But he doesn’t. We see his grief and then we’re told in a black and white postscript that Gloria made it to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and died shortly after.
There’s more than my cancer on Bob’s mind. It’s still fresh that we didn’t make it to Chicago in time to see his dad before he died, last month. The call came at 3 A.M. just before our alarm clock went off to get us up for our 6 A.M. flight. By the time we arrived it was to a funeral home, not the hospital.
At the end of the movie, a grainy black and white clip is played. It’s the Oscars, 1952, and the winner of the best actress award is called out. A pretty young actress in a poodle-skirted dress breezes up, takes the statuette from Bob Hope, and in likely the briefest speech in Oscar history, says “thank you,” and strides off the stage with nary a pause.
Bob and I look at each other. “It’s real? A true story?” He searches on his phone, finds Gloria Graham’s bio. She and Peter Turner were real. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974 but didn’t do chemotherapy. The cancer came back in 1979, and she died in 1981.
We read Gloria Graham was born in 1923, which meant she was Bob’s age at her death, two years older than me. The “aging” actress seems suddenly quite young.
We turn out the lights for bed, but I can’t switch off the film. Cancer seems omni-present these days. Gloria Graham died of breast cancer. I have breast cancer. Yes, it’s nearly 40 years later, and I’ve had chemotherapy, but I live with a far greater chance of early death now.
I can tell Bob is thinking it too. “I’m here for you,” he says. “You know that, don’t you?”
And yes, yes, I do. I just hope our story ends better than the movie.