Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Billy Liar is a compelling film for any male who ever had misgivings about
his place in the world, and particularly for ambitious dreamers - the kind
whose dreams are not well-received by those around him. It's a transition film
for the UK, from the naturalism of the 'angry young man' dramas of the early '60s,
into the lighter comedies that came along when London took precedence as
the culture capitol of of the world. It was a major English success but not shown
much here in the states, and it holds up as a charming, honest and influential (especially
to the likes of Richard Lester) piece of original work.
Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a youthful clerk with a big problem. Absorbed by a fantasy
where he imagines himself the president of a country called Ambrosia, the immature
Billy is so dissatisfied with his life in a dismal Yorkshire town that he
fabricates all kinds of unsupportable and embarassing lies. His beleagured parents think he's engaged to
Barbara (Helen Fraser) when he's actually promised himself to 3 potential mates. He's quitting his steady
job, while boasting about a spiffy but nonexistent London career as a writer. And
he's about to land in hot water due to pilferage at the firm. Only when the
gorgeous, adventurous Liz (Julie Christie) comes back to town, willing to run
away to London with him to start a real life together, does the vocally ambitious
Billy's character even begin to come into focus.
Billy Liar has rather involved fantasy scenes but concentrates mostly on intimate character
drama; interestingly, the pre-Richard Lester style of the fantasy elements seems much less important
now than it did in the '60s. Billy Fisher is always amusing, but the seriousness of his
situation eventually spins the show into a very sophisticated character study. Billy's character
is similar to Al Roberts in Detour in that he has a lot of natural
charm, but is totally unaware of his own true nature. His fantasy ego demands that he distinguish
himself, but he is seemingly motivated to put roadblocks in his own way, by the humility of his
station in society.
Billy is a rebel of the kitchen-sink school, but of a different kind. He
unconsciously rebels against facing life in a mature way (being just a
clerk, marrying the sweet but depressing Barbara)
yet hasn't the courage or character to boldly strike out on his own. The
alternative presented by the exciting Liz has the viewer champing at the bit, hoping
Billy will break the bonds of his little town and grow as a person, out
of his self-defeating habits.
Tom Courtenay is fascinating to watch as Billy, never telegraphing simple explanations for his
puzzling behaviour. His long-suffering parents alternate with honest advice and humiliating
scorn, and Mona Washburne and Wilfred Pickles keep them sympathetic. Helen Fraser (Repulsion) makes
the dowdy Barbara delightful, and it's a working-class tragedy when she and her competitor Rita
(Gwendolyn Watts) come to blows over Billy's ridiculous two-timing. With their ceaseless goal
being marriage, now, to anyone in pants, they're in a worse trap than Billy is. Leonard Rossiter
(2001: A Space
Odyssey) and Finlay Currie make an interesting pair of employers because they're not made to be
buffoons to elevate Billy's rebellion. In fact, considering the kind of 'fiddle' Fisher's been up to,
they're rather forgiving.
The Julie Christie character clearly turned a lot of heads in 1963
England, and now in retrospect seems even more perfectly cast. Cheerful,
optimistic, and unconcerned with provincial life, the independent Liz represents
the spirit of the swinging '60s that's just around the corner, with the
Beatles and the rest of the rise of English rock culture. Indifferently
dressed and with a disarrayed hairdo, she's that Everygirl, the one you
could have known, if you had the guts to overcome your idiotic shyness
and self-absorbtion long enough to just say Hi. John Schlesinger built
the beginnings of his career with Julie Christie, and her part in Billy Liar
is magical. Where else in 1963 movies could a 'good girl' be sexually
forward, open-minded and healthy at the same time?
We can see the tension in Billy's face, as he weighs the security of his fantasies against the real
but terrifying prospect of escaping with Liz, and it's painful, or at least it was to this viewer.
Everyone knew someone like Fisher, and most of us can identify with
his peculiarities. As a 'yoot', Savant had a good handle on the truth most of the time, and luckily
seized some of his opportunities when they came along, but Billy Liar reminds
of all the confused decisions of youth that one perversely uses to limit
oneself. Like loser Al Roberts, Billy has to realize that his petty
irresponsibilities will backfire in his face. But he plays what would
seem to be an emotionally risky game of denial with the whole subject.
Most movies have a hard time just giving their characters a veneer of logic;
the whole point of Billy Liar is that human character is often full of
inconsistencies and self-contradictions that completely defy logic.
In the middle of Billy's mendacities large and small is the moment when he's given public credit for
his writing of the twist song, 'Twisterella', with his work pal. For a moment, we're sure it's another
lie, but it's not. The moment is perfect, because it
shows that Billy really has lost perspective. It's a dumb song, but it is an accomplishment
of sorts, that should at least qualify him to work for the pitiful comedian Danny Boon.
But Billy can't enjoy his glory or put it in perspective because it's too confused with
his other lies - he doesn't know what's true any more. If you can't tell what's what,
maintaining self confidence is impossible.
Billy is clever and imaginative and does have a reasonably keen wit. With just some guts, all
of his dreams could have come true, even if he had to be patient and wait for his breaks.
Criterion's disc is quite a revelation for those like Savant who've only
seen Billy Liar pan'n scanned on television. The photography is remarkable,
and the wide anamorphic screen is essential to 'get' all of the fantasy moments
that pop in and out. There's one running gag, with Billy mentally machine-gunning
various irksome people in his life. It uses clever matched cuts of Courtenay
in his pajamas, jump-cutting to him in battle gear, that simply don't work
very well in 'scope. Also, Courtenay's big scene in the park with Christie is
a double choker closeup, and every second you're watching only one of the faces
means you're missing what emotions might be flashing across the face of the
other. Schlesinger does a lot of literal 'architectural' framing on the
crumbling streets with walls coming down and new structures being built in
their place, and only in the full frame can you even begin to become comfortable
with the show. Add to that 16:9 enhancement, and the disc is a stunner.
An excerpt from a British BBC show, Hollywood U.K.: British Cinema in the Sixties
shows not only Schlesinger and his collaboraters Waterhouse and Hall, but
snippets of new interviews with Courtenay and (a still-arresting) Christie,
and provides even more great background on the picture. Avoid the well-cut
trailer until you see the film because it's something of a spoiler.
Courtenay and Christie join Schlesinger for an audio commentary track, which is fairly
absorbing. The director has fond memories of producer Joseph Janni (Modesty Blaise)
and Tom Courteny does comparisons between the movie and his experience playing Billy
on the stage. They both make some very interesting observations about the Billy Fisher character.
Julie Christie admits to having been in a panic during shooting, and talks about the
differences between the northern and southern 'counties'. She's very lucid admitting that her
face had some kind of presence on the screen that made her a movie star totally aside from
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Billy Liar rates:
Supplements: Commentary, docu excerpt, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 8, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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