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The late Alan Bates had many "bests" (if one may be permitted to say
so)because of the constant intensity he brought to every role. He made
acting something of a physical sport. In this case, his neurotic Butley
uses language as a fencer's epee, yielding nothing to putative
antagonists in the tight confines of an English department office in a
major university as the camera follows him doggedly thrusting and
parrying without pause. I especially liked the puns and double
entendres (obviously). This sort of thing is not for everyone, of
course, and I do not blame the viewer who is easily bored by such
Did I mention the superb camera work? It is a tour de force to take a stage play like this one and make it come alive on film. Great acting and great direction would be lost without due attention to the medium, and this one has it par excellence. As depressing as the theme may be, and as unlikeable the fictional characters, this production succeeds in demonstrating just how powerful a film can be in spite of itself. It reminded me instantly of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in that regard. And it is uncanny in its recognition of all the unhappy details found in any college English department office.
The nicest touch, of course, was in making Butley a T. S. Eliot specialist, with a photo of the lugubrious poet pinned to the wall. Much comic relief if one knows how to spot it.
A movie like this works as a small-setting exercise in actor virtuosity
-- Bates grabs the individual words, twirls them around, and pitches
them at his enemies with a high-pitched, womanly cackle -- and it works
brilliantly on that level. But it also works on a larger level of a man
who uses words as an evasive tool. Of course no one really talks like
this, no one is this witty, but more than just entertaining dialogue
(and some of it is very funny) the writing does serve an emotional
purpose. Bates' performance, as a professor who avoids his
contemporaries and who tries to dig into the mind of his young male
lover, is incredibly good; it's like he's tap-dancing on top of himself
with the exuberant joy of performance. And I loved the smart, youthful,
innocent-patient tenderness in O' Callaghan's performance as the lover
he shares an office with (where the majority of the film takes place).
Butley the man can't quite be explained, even though certain facets of his personality are obvious -- he's coated in irony, yet that can't hide his failings: he's jealous of the woman who's getting published while he's not, he can't stand students who just want to learn, and he's resentful of the man stealing his boyfriend from him. But yet he desperately goes chasing after people down the hall, just to get the last word in; he almost literally hangs off the doorknob while various characters come into his office; he screeches at the top of his lungs just to see if his leaving visitor will stop and come back. Butley does so often talk in the false hypothetical -- that type of grandstanding where he mentions something abstractly that specifically refers to someone -- that at times it's difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, he's referring to. (When he talks to Reg, the man stealing his boyfriend from him, does he use words like "queer" and "fairy" intending to mock himself to shock Reg, or to mock Reg in the guise of innocently questioning him?) While I didn't quite catch all the literary references -- just about the only drawback for me -- this is one of the most satisfying movies I've seen about the handling of a dying relationship. 10/10
When I first saw this film, Ben Butley fascinated me (my cousin, who saw it with me, hated him). I've seen the film many times since then--I bought the video before I had a VCR to play it on--and it remains my favorite movie. And Alan Bates remains my favorite actor, although he's not at all like Butley. I wouldn't recommend the film to everybody, because it's a filmed play, totally in one room, all talk. Ah, but what talk, what dynamics between characters, what vicious game-playing and ruthlessness and humor. Simon Gray's never written a better play.
Simon Gray's extremely talky, darkly comic 1971 play is cinematized
here, direct from the text, for television's American Film Theatre.
Doughy-faced and feckless-looking Alan Bates gives a bravura, nonstop performance as the eponymous sloppy, over-literate, misanthropic, washed-up English professor at the University of London. He is an unlikeable character, so there's no sympathizing with him; it's more like watching a train wreck.
But Bates inhabits the role fiercely, and makes him entertaining and lively -- and at times funny -- enough to hold our attention for the two-hour performance, 95% of which takes place in a single room. The room is Butley's office, which he shares with his longterm young lover Joey, now an assistant lecturer.
"Butley" feels a bit like Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", which was written nine years prior to Gray's play. Butley's verbal diatribes go for the jugular, but in allusive, literary or nursery-rhymey, uber-rhetorical, abstract, indirect, and bitterly sarcastic ways. It's a lot to pay attention to -- especially the literary quotes and allusions. And sometimes it's a bit much watching a man go through a slow meltdown in the guise of skewering anyone and everyone around him: Joey, his ex-wife, his students and colleagues, Joey's new love interest, and anyone who even tries to get close to or talk reason to him.
What seems like it might become unrelieved verbal cruelty is thankfully mitigated from time to time by the thoughtful, intelligent, gentle integrity of Joey (wonderfully played by Richard O'Callaghan, who, like Bates, originated his role), and by some real laugh-out-loud moments, and by a character or two who seem for a time to beat Butley at his own cruel mind games.
In the end, the play seems to come full circle metaphorically, giving the audience at least a sense of symmetry and unity and finally quietude before it closes. A worthwhile watch if you like cinematized plays or want more of the very impressive Alan Bates.
The American Film Theatre was a praiseworthy effort to present classic
modern plays to a wide audience. The series petered out when it became
clear that there was in fact not enough of an audience to make the
venture viable. This left us with a group of films, or rather filmed
plays, of varying quality but always interesting, if not only for the
wonderful casts assembled for the series. "Butley" was one of the best.
After years of oblivion, the series is finally and thankfully being
The problem with Simon Gray's very engaging play is that the characters are people one would hardly want to meet. They are a deeply flawed, unlikable bunch. As such we have little sympathy for any of them and hence Gray, intentionally or not, does not allow the viewer to connect emotionally with his characters. He instead allows us to watch as Ben Butley's life slowly disintegrates before our eyes. Despite the enforced detachment, it still remains a fascinating process, thanks to Pinter's precise direction, Gray's very sharp dialogue and Alan Bates delivering an astonishingly virtuoso performance.
It's one of those extremely rare performances in which the actor becomes completely engulfed by the character. It's a feat to behold; almost scary at times. This alone makes "Butley" an unforgettable experience.
This really plays much like a filming of a play. The direction is
almost minimal. That's probably for the good given that what remains is
a great bit of showmanship.
Alan Bates is stunningly good as the lead Butley. He's a brilliant professor and writer at the end of his career. There is some amazing scheming between his character and younger more promising acolytes that he is jealous of.
The only reason to watch this is for the dialogue which is sharp and literate -- one wonders what became of this. The version I saw was a film version of the play. Not much of production value but the playwright's craft is still preserved. Even mentioning all of this, it's amazing how well this holds up almost 40 years later. That's probably due to Bates' bravura performance.
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