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Tragi-comic misadventures of a young man who invents a fantasy world as
cover for his troubles and dreary middle-class existence in sixties
Billy Liar was always a terrific film, but like so many of its kitchen-sink contemporaries (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving) it has actually grown in substance and depth since its release. Part of the reason is the extensive use of on-location filming all these movies utilised: a post-war industrial landscape long since lost and therefore all the more vivid in its posterity. But where Billy Liar gets a bigger march on its predecessors - whether by intent or accident - is that it captures this landscape on the cusp of the swinging sixties, when architecture, culture, leisure and morality were all rapidly changing. In doing so it heralds many of the themes and issues that were to dominate western culture for the remainder of the 20th Century: pop culture, advertising, media obsession, celebrity, race relations and fantasy lifestyles.
Billy seemed an endearing but essentially lost soul in his day; an immature weakling unable to face up to the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. But looked at from the hindsight of 40 years he now seems symptomatic of what is today regarded as normal, almost aspirational, behaviour: self-absorption; avoidance of responsibility; glorification of celebrity; escape culture.
Whether director John Schelsinger and writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall foresaw all the cultural and sociological changes they captured is something only they would know (they surely couldn't have seen the significance of casting Julie Christie - one of the ultimate swinging sixties icons). Whatever the case, what makes Billy Liar such a fascinating film is the casual, uncritical and unselfconscious way its many themes are observed. Its lack of preachiness or self-righteousness help keep it a fresh and funny entertainment that can be enjoyed at that level. Its historical importance as a perfect snapshot of a country at a time of rapid and fundamental change is nothing less than priceless.
"Billy Liar!" impressed me more than many other admirable British pictures of this era, like "Room at the Top", "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and "This Sporting Life". It managed to generate a more tangible blend of poignancy and amusement. It's not often humour of the "laugh-out-loud" nature, more of the subtle, grim kind. The reality of Britain at that time is I suspect, very well conveyed here, with the old working-class, represented by Councillor Duxbury (astutely played by the fine Finlay Currie) and Billy's family, very much at odds with what they see as an ungrateful, decadent youth. All the performances hit the intended mark, with Leonard Rossiter typically Rossiter, almost as a younger Rigsby, without so much noticeable seediness. Julie Christie is as good as the role allows, an odd role, very much the "dream girl" of Billy and I dare say a good few others. The film expertly avoids sentimentalizing matters by its cunning, apposite last section. The Danny Boon character is, one suspects, all too typical of the TV light entertainer mould in reality. His reliance on cheap non-gags, smug guffaws and "audience banter" is well conveyed in just a few short scenes. It's interesting that Billy seems to aspire so much to write for him in particular... Helen Fraser's character Barbara is wonderfully quaint; a type long gone it seems. One can understand Billy's frustrations with his respectively prudish and plain (Barbara) and ignorant (Rita) girlfriends, and his anger at his family, although some sympathy is correctly reserved for them. The direction is very good by Schlesinger, emphasizing all the right things. The fine context-setting opening montage expertly draws in the viewer, and never at any stage henceforth is anyone's attention likely to wane. The film is most of all Tom Courtenay's; he gives a truly resonant performance, bringing to vivid life a character far removed from the norms of film making at the time. The fantasy sequences are finely done, and all add more deep impression of this character. His digressive tendencies, self-destructive habits, economy with the truth are well balanced by a sense of yearning and imagination. One cannot help but like and relate to the character, a creation that resoundingly rings true. His ambivalence to the class system comes across concisely, in particular. A fine film indeed, with so many of the smaller touches that many films miss. Witty, sad and a seminal film of the era, very much a crossroads in British history. Rating:- **** 1/2/*****
What makes this little black and white film so absorbing? As I was watching
it on late-night TV, I found myself on the edge of my seat, gripping the
arms of my chair, trying not to yell at the main character, Billy Fisher,
near the end of the film. How absorbed can you be?
The dialogue, the acting, and the storyline was so realistic and natural that I had completely forgotten that I was watching a film. Years later on the next viewing I had thought it wouldn't suck me in again, especially since I knew the ending, but I was wrong. In fact I was able to appreciate it all the more on the second viewing.
Tom Courtenay plays Billy Fisher, who is an immature, irresponsible young man living in a Walter Mitty-ish fantasy world, and invents implausible stories to attempt to hide his escapades, but his lies keep backfiring on him.
His life is rapidly falling apart. He is supposed to mail out calendars from his employers to their clients, but he doesn't mail them, and keeps the postage money. He even manages to con two girls into becoming engaged to him, and that explodes into a catfight over him when they find out. His grandmother is dying, his father is continually angry at him, and everything he does just makes matters worse.
Fortunately, he meets Liz, (played by Julie Christie, who is the best thing in this great movie). She is sweet, beautiful, and understands him completely because of her own need to escape, which she does by travelling around the country.
He has the opportunity to get away from all the trouble he's in and go to London, and make a fresh start with Liz who is so perfect for him. But can he change? Can he summon the courage to break free of the messy but secure life he knows and face the unknown? Will he recognise that Liz is the best thing that could ever happen to him?
I'm not going to tell you, because that would spoil the film, but, whichever way he decides, any film that has you on the edge of your seat, yelling "Go with her! Don't miss this opportunity! Go! Go!" you know it's a truly wonderful and realistic film!
I saw 'Billy Liar' on stage in London, with Albert Finney, no less, in the
Billy Fisher. As good as Finney was (check out Frear's 'Gumshoe' for
the role, Tom Courtney, is better. Finney was too laconic. He had the wrong
'build'. Courtney, however, IS Billy Fisher. I can't quite put it into words, but that dour face of his, the pursed lips, and his loopy smile... who else but Tom
Courtney in the role. The plot is simplicity itself. Billy lives in a world of his own making. He's not connected with everyday events - he's a Yorkshire version of Walter Mitty - and who doesn't daydream every now and then? Director, John
Schlesinger (who gave us Darling & Midnight Cowboy), adds some surreal
touches (one comes to mind: Billy's reaction to another of his father's lectures). Julie Christie plays Liz. She understands Billy - thing is, Billy doesn't quite understand her, or if he does, it frightens the pants off him. For all Billy's posturing, he's a home boy at heart. "Billy Liar" is one of the truly great British films of the sixties. It's not often it appears on late night T.V., or on cable. If it does, or you see it on video at your local video store, get it out. See it. then wind it back and see it again!!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Made at a time when the British Cinema was heavily under the influence of the French New Wave directors," Bily Liar" is a rather plaintive movie about a young man in the North of England,naif and not so clever as he thinks he is,who sees his future reflected in the life of his parents ,desperately wants to escape from what seems pre - ordained but lacks the courage to make an irrevocable step into the unknown. He lives his fantasies in the imaginary "Freedonia" but is unable to make the stuff of dreams reality.An aspirant comedy writer he is given a vague offer of possible work in London by a visiting comic but will he settle for the devil he knows rather than the devil he doesn't? Opening the film with the music from "Housewives' Choice" was a stroke of inspiration.The camera moves up along a street with net curtains and we enter Billy Fisher's home.Here lives one of the greatest tragi-comic creations of the 1960s novel.Blessed with loving but uncomprehending parents Billy has seen how the real world works and wants no truck with it. The radio and TV performer Mr Wilfred Pickles has the role of his life as Billy's father.A man of his time,Mr Fisher senior expects his son to be a chip off the old block in the respectable lower middle class northern manner.Instead he seems to have sired an alien being. Together with "A kind of loving" this film dragged the north kicking and screaming from its whippets and Woodbines era when it appeared to be a satellite of eastern Europe.You cannot imagine Billy Fisher in a cloth cap. Mr Tom Courtenay is superb as Billy,sly,blustering, yet at the same time funny and endearing. When Miss Julie Christie turns up to further complicate his love life Billy finally decides to make that train journey south. There is an agonising scene played out at the railway station before the incandescently beautiful Miss Christie,as brave and optimistic as Billy is weak and doubtful,leaves without him. Trapped by his inner doubts,Billy presumably drifts off into a life of safe mediocrity,choosing to live a year like a lamb rather than a week like a lion.And that is so sad.
I was a teenager when the film was made, and immediately recognized the pictures of cities in the 60's, the cars, streets, buildings, the interior of the houses. Even so the way people looked and talked. Beautiful. I never read the book but it seemed to me that Billies dreams were put on screen a bit overdone but therefore also very funny. Like small boys càn exaggerate, but Billy was not a small boy anymore, and therefore really a sad guy. His family had had it with him, quarrelling all the time, his boss and colleagues saw through him and everywhere his time was running out. That he had 2-3 girlfriends was a miracle. His lying promises did the trick. Time for a change, one would say ! The climax was the end of course. All of a sudden Liz got on his right side with messages of love and persuaded him onto the train to London. She was enthusiastic and dedicated to get with him out of her dull-after-war-life and gloomy city. The message of the movie is: grab your chances now or don't. In the 60's that was a coming up and everyday question for many of the young people (and still is !) and therefore very actual (then and now). I liked the movie and how the actors created their characters. Tom Courtenay did it with very much conviction. A splendid, for that time spirited, and very good looking Julie Christie as Liz the new-age young girl, with no ties or limitations (responsibility ?) whatsoever to withhold her from doing what she wanted to. We saw more of these girls in Holland soon after 1963. See the movie: you won't regret it I'm sure. Hans Veldman.
John Schlesinger's excellent British comedy-drama concerns Billy (Tom Courtenay), a middle class young man who despises his position as a funeral parlor bookkeeper. Billy spends the majority of his time daydreaming of a much more interesting life filled with conquests, esp. of women. He'd love to quit his dead-end job and become a writer, but when the opportunity arrives, is he too content living in his head and telling lies to embellish his otherwise mundane existence? Too afraid to realize his dreams? This quirky slice-of-life is thematically similar to Le Distrait (The Daydreamer), a 1975 French release with an entirely different conclusion. A young, glowing Julie Christie appears briefly in Billy Liar, injecting color, life, and hope into Billy's dreary, black and white existence. Highly recommended. -- David Ross Smith
Effective slice of life comedy/drama tells the story of scared,
optimistic Billy (Tom Courtenay) who lives in a fantasy world where he's
always a hero. Funny and charming, the film also packs a slight emotional
punch that is somewhat similar to The Last Picture Show. Based on a stage
play, the story of Billy Liar has since been revamped as a musical yet it's
this 1963 version that works best.
Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie (Liz) leapfrogged to stardom with their performances but every actor is beautifully cast: Mona Washbourne, Wilfred Pickles, and Ethel Griffies are the character types who give Billy's family heartbreaking nuances while Helen Fraser and Gwendolyn Watts bring a refreshingly sympathetic humanity to his polar opposite fiancees.
Liz's entrance, Billy's fantasies, a dance hall sequence, a quiet hospital exchange between Billy and his mother, and the final choice are classic scenes that have been constructed with genius by John Schlesinger (Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday). The Criterion Collection's DVD treatment of Billy Liar is a standout and shouldn't be missed. It's a great film.
Most novels may not necessary translate well to the stage, let alone to
Big screen. 'Billy Liar' has achieved all that.
I have just recently discovered this 'hidden' gem from among the throngs
DVD shelves. The reason I 'picked it up' was due largely to the
name, John Schlesinger. Having seen his catapult to American fame
Cowboy', I reckon why not check out his earlier British work. Boy was I
First of all, the script. The adapted screenplay by the original writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall is wickedly witty and performative for theatre dramatics, yet it crosses perfectly to the realms of cinema. The cut-aways to the lavishly staged dream sequences are so effective, so in contrast to the stark realism that we get from most of the on-location filming (from the DVD bonus features, the two writers actually take you on a present day 'tour' of a couple of the 'real'locations, juxtaposed with snippets of the film sequences at exactly the same spots).
Also commendable is the black and white cinematography by veteran Bristish lensman Denys Coop. Done in Cinemascope, the depth of Hinchcliffe Avenue can only be fully realised in the widescreen format, so avoid the re-formatted tv release at all costs!
And I must say the most amazing thing about the film is still the performance. Schlesinger rarely fails to bring out the best from his actors, and this seminal work is no exception. All the supporting cast, from 'Mr Shadrack ', Billy's family and girlfriends played very well to be the 'plastic reality' that's driving Billy insane. Hence, he seeks solance,affirmation and escape in his fantasies and lies, but ultimately we know which track he ends back on.
Tom Courtenay is simply 'Billy Liar'. Somehow, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ewen Macgregor, or perhaps that's just me. It was mentioned that Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, who have both played the title character on stage, were considered for the the film role at the same time. I can't help but only wonder how it would've turned out if Finney got the part instead...
Last but not least, who can resist Julie Christie, aka Liz. She is Billy's object of desire cum temptation cum salvation, very much in contrast to Billy's inhabited world... simply beautiful. The intro sequence of Liz as she walks along the streets of Bradford is another highlight of the film, undescribable with words. You gotta see it for ya self~
What else can I say about 'Billy Liar'. I guess everyone was once a 'Billy Liar', or still has a Billy Liar in him or herself. Well, at least I can say it for me self. Perhaps on a finer day, I WILL CATCH thee TRAIN to 'London'.......
I give it 9/10 :-)
Tom Courtenay is colorless as a member of the British working class who daydreams his way out of the monotony of his life; Julie Christie is thoroughly charming as a local girl whose life really is a fairy tale. Adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's novel (which he co-wrote along with Willis Hall, having originally turned the material into a play), this mixture of stuck-in-a-rut reality with flights-of-fancy never quite finds its cinematic niche. The deceptively simple, 'non-flashy' flashy technique used by director John Schlesinger and his editor was quite fashionable for its time, and consequently very popular abroad, but the picture tends to flag whenever the scenario is purposefully drab (or whenever Christie is not on-screen). Courtenay just isn't interesting enough as a personality to carry this callow conceit, although he gets good support from Finlay Currie and Wilford Pickles. ** from ****
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