Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Loneliness of the Elderly English Thespian

One of the things I love about great actors is how malleable they are. Watching the young Tom Courtenay in his breakout film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), I was thoroughly convinced he was a working-class kid with a chip on his shoulder. This film, directed by Tony Richardson, is a landmark of the so-called British New Wave, a period (roughly 1959-1963) of of grimly ironic, loosely-structured independent flicks set among Britain’s working class. Adapted by Alan Sillitoe from his own acclaimed short story, it shifts between the central character’s unexpected talent for long-distance running and his recollections of the shabby surroundings and shady people that have led him to a stint in a borstal, or detention center for underaged boys. His final act of defiance is vividly shown to have sprung forth from the resentments of an underclass against the snooty expectations of their social betters.

 That role put Courtenay on the map. Soon after, he got even more attention for playing another downtrodden Brit, this one with a crazily vivid imagination, in Billy Liar. Fortunately, his later film and stage work allowed him to branch out, and he was Oscar-nominated as a Russian revolutionary in Doctor Zhivago. About two decades later, in 1983, Courtenay transferred one of his all-time best stage roles to the screen. His character, Norman, in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser couldn’t have been more different from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’s feckless Colin Smith. The Dresser is set in the English provinces, at the height of World War II, when blackouts and German bombs are everywhere, and Brits are desperate for public entertainment. The central characters are all part of a small acting troupe touring the hinterlands, bringing Shakespearean classics to the masses. They’re a motley lot, but their star (always referred to as “Sir”) is beloved by audiences for his bombastic talents and his longevity. Never the easiest of men to please, he’s vain and dictatorial—and all too aware that his lease on life may soon expire. Courtenay plays his dresser and all-purpose assistant, who knows how to wrangle the old man into doing what needs to be done, whether through flattery, through bullying, through bribery, or through desperate pleading.

 Norman has no desire to actually be an actor (he’s terrified when he has to go onstage and make an announcement), but his work as Sir’s round-the-clock factotum is itself the most demanding of acting roles. No accident that the play being performed through much of the film is King Lear, with Sir as the ageing monarch raging against the dying of the light. For all that he performs his role offstage, Norman can be pegged as Lear’s Fool: lowly, sometimes ridiculous (and, frankly, effeminate), but blessed or cursed with a shrewd understanding of his master.

 Harwood, the author of The Dresser, based the play on his memories of touring for five years as the dresser of Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Wolfit was advanced in years at the time, but not (like the character of Sir) at death’s door. Having just seen Albert Finney in the role, I was surprised to discover that this big, limp sack of a man—clearly failing, but with some residual grandeur—was in fact in his mid-forties, just twenty years past his boyishly roguish lead role in Tom Jones. (I also learned that Courtenay’s screen role in Billy Liar was introduced on stage by none other than Albert Finney: the two are barely a year apart in age.)

 That’s why I love actors: they’re always capable of surprises.

I've just discovered there's a 2015 TV version of  The Dresser, starring British treasures Ian McKellan and Anthony Hopkins. How wonderful to find such rich parts for men of advanced age! Here's a trailer for that production, slightly less bombastic than the 1983 trailer above.

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