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Classic Movie Blog
Billy Liar – (1963)
John Schlesinger is one of my favorite directors, and three of his best films, Darling (1965), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) are three of my favorite films of all time. Coincidentally, all three of these films garnered him best directing Oscar nominations. He won for Midnight Cowboy – the only X-Rated (at the time) film to win best picture. Unfortunately, Schlesinger was burdened by commercial and Hollywood success. It was a curse. There are few directors who have been so heavily lauded that have so many stinkers in their oeuvre. Later career films, The Believers (87), An Eye for an Eye (1996) and the much maligned, Madonna vehicle, The Next Best Thing (00), although disappointing, cannot tarnish his earlier and singular work, which is brilliant and visionary.
His second narrative feature film, (Schlesinger was originally a documentary filmmaker) Billy Liar (63) is a delightful movie. It is inventive, intimate, both funny and sad, and surprisingly moving. Following the Walter Mitty trope of an ordinary man who uses fantasy and visions of grandeur to assuage the pathological mundaneness of everyday, the amazing Tom Courtney plays Billy Fisher, a young lazy, unfocused youth still living with his parents. He is so caught up in delusion and unreality that he is engaged to two different girls, with no intention to marry either. He is also a famous author, British noblemen and benevolent admired dictator. He is quite adept at dodging reality and putting off his baffled, badgering parents, who have to remind him to get up in the morning and go to work, beg him to contribute more to the household, and desperately want him to get a grip.
This precarious tight rope, yet fun existence is challenged when a beautiful, sophisticated, local girl, who has a glamorous life in swinging London, comes to town and encourages him to leave and come back to London with her, to a hip, better life. Herein lies the crux of the film and Billy’s character-unknown real life, with its possibilities of disappointments and failures, cannot compare with a fabricated life of glorious success and excitement.
Christie, only 22 or 23 three here, has such an incredible face. At times she looks stunningly beautiful in a gauzy, glamorous glow and other times she looks like a square-headed tomboy- almost androgynous, yet earthy with strong chin. Two years later she would win the Oscar for best actress, at the ripe age of 25, for Darling, and would remain one of Schlesinger’s muses throughout his life. Christie’s role is minor here, but vivid and it’s clear she is headed for stardom.
This is a terrific, underrated, often overlooked film from the British New Wave. There are so many reasons to see it: Courtney’s remarkable performance and Schlesinger’s assured direction are just two. Schlesinger was a brilliant technician and craftsman and often struggled with blending emotional resonance with his desire to be objective and representational. But here, especially in the last third, he succeeds brilliantly.
Six degrees of separation:
I am a huge Schlesinger fan and once, while living in Los Angeles, I spotted him at an opening night ceremony at a film festival that had a silent auction fundraiser. I became a bit stalkerish as I raced around a long table of auction items, pushing through people, to get to him on the other side. When I finally reached him, I blurted out something spastic and barely coherent, like “I am such a huge fan of yours, not like a normal fan, but someone who studied you in film school, and did papers on your films-such a huge fan!” He responded with a withering look and said, drolly, “Of course you are, Darling. Of course you are.”
Cut to 2020- (about 20-23 years later) After writing my blog about Two for the Road where I praised Frederic Raphael’s brilliant screenplay, Mr. Raphael, 88 sent me a thank you note for mentioning my admiration for his work in the film. Raphael also wrote Darling and won the Oscar for it.
Stream it on Amazon, Kanopy and other obscure platforms.
Sidebar: 1966 was a very good year for Julie Christie, she starred in both films that won Screenplay Oscars, (for adapted) Dr. Zhivago and (original) Darling.