Years melt away as Bening and Bell play unlikely lovers

Annette Bening plays opposite 31-year-old Jamie Bell in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," the story of an unlikely love affair

She was an Oscar-winning femme fatale and co-star of James Stewart, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. He was a stage actor 29 years her junior from a British housing project.

Four-times married Gloria Grahame's unlikely love affair with Peter Turner ought to have been the stuff of Hollywood legend and yet it is a story that has largely been ignored -- until now.

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," a major new movie starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, chronicles their profound but heartbreaking relationship in the years before Grahame's death at the age of just 57.

Reversing the trend for graying Lotharios playing opposite actresses decades younger, 59-year-old Bening and former child star Bell, 31, share passionate love scenes in the biopic, which has earned both actors widespread acclaim.

Bening told AFP she hadn't worried about the age difference between her and her young co-star, who shot to fame at the age of 14 as a pint-sized ballet dancer in "Billy Elliot" (2000).

"I've played opposite men that were older than me my whole life," she said on the red carpet for a gala screening of the movie as part of the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Hollywood on Sunday.

"Very rarely have they been the same age," she said, describing Bell as "a pro who has gravitas as a human being, a really good man."

- Seductress -

Bening, married to octogenarian Warren Beatty for 25 years and, like Grahame, a mother of four, went out of her way to praise director Paul McGuigan, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh and the many other men in the cast and crew.

"We did have a great group of men working on this movie and I just wanted to bring that up because men are getting a lot of flak these days," she said.

Bell, too, said the age gap between him and his four-time Oscar-nominated co-star had been of little concern, although he admitted being intimidated by her acting pedigree.

"It makes you raise your game when you are working with someone you know is in a different league," he said.

"You know that you have to go an extra mile just to be on level terms with them, so I was very grateful for her trust and support."

Despite appearing early in her career in feel-good classic "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), Grahame was often cast as an affluent seductress or gangster's moll in film noir.

The one-time neighbor of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall won an Oscar for a nine-minute supporting role in "The Bad and the Beautiful" in 1952, a record at the time for the shortest performance to take the statuette.

- Pure romance -

Her best known work came in the early-to-mid 1950s with an acclaimed turn opposite Bogart in "In a Lonely Place," as well as roles in "Sudden Fear," "The Big Heat" and "Oklahoma!"

In the end her glittering silver screen career was damaged by poor movie choices and stories of bad behavior on set, and was largely over by the time she met Turner, as she was appearing on stage in London.

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," based on Turner's memoir of the same name, shows an initial flirtation flower into something much more profound as the aspiring actor stays with the fading star in California.

The narrative swings back and forth between their burgeoning relationship in London and the US and her final days resting at his home in Liverpool before her death from cancer in 1981, the day she returned to New York.

"It was a great romance, and I haven't really done many of those. There are not really that many around. What I like about this romance is it's very pure," Bell said.

"It's set in a time which was much less judgmental. The internet wasn't around, we didn't know everything about everybody. When we met someone, we just met them and experienced them for who they were."

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" is released on Friday in Britain and on December 29 in the US.