To get the most out of this film, it helps to be familiar with the work of 1950s Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, as this fair-to-middling biopic about the last two years of Grahame's life is pretty esoteric: it was a passion project for producer (and James Bond rights holder) Barbara Broccoli, who not only knew Grahame and her lover Peter Turner – more on that in a minute – but is friends with Annette Bening, who plays Grahame. One wonders if anyone outside of Broccoli's circle will care.
An adaptation of Turner's memoir of the same title, the film recounts the unlikely romance between Grahame, a faded (but still active) star in her late fifties, and Turner, a struggling Liverpudlian actor nearly half her age. Shifting back and forth between "present-day" 1981, when a gravely ill Grahame turns up on Turner's doorstep, and flashbacks throughout their two-year relationship, Film Stars is mainly a showcase for Bening. Not only a physical match for the older Grahame, she adeptly captures Grahame's enduring kittenishness, as well as her volatility. Unsurprisingly, she's the best thing about the movie, and she'll surely rack up some accolades come awards season.
Jamie Bell portrays Turner with the typical generic, dull-narrator seriousness you'll find in actors who play straight men to vibrant, unstable women (see: George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's; Eddie Redmayne in My Week With Marilyn – a film not dissimilar to this one). Stellar supporting players, including Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave, charm in fleeting roles.
The film has an odd look to it: Urszula Pontikos's baroque cinematography is hit-and-miss, and director McGuigan's "live", on-set flashback transitions are way more elaborate than necessary.
In the end, the story is so specific and personal that it's hard to imagine many people connecting with it, aside from fans of Gloria Grahame and/or Annette Bening. Even Bell, in an interview, confessed that he'd never heard of Grahame when he got the script. She wasn't exactly a Hollywood footnote – she won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, starred in a number of classic noir films (Sudden Fear, The Big Heat, and In a Lonely Place are all very much worth seeing), and even warbled the part of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! – but your average art house filmgoer may not know much about her. Film Stars should have filled us in a bit more on Grahame's life pre-Turner. Instead, we're mostly left to infer why her career dimmed, and to ponder how she wound up with both a shabby mobile home in Malibu and a luxurious apartment in Manhattan.