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'Withnail' and You: A Cult Fave Resurfaces

Those who missed the 1987 British comedy the first time around can join its fervent followers with its return on cassette.

November 10, 1996|Donald Liebenson | Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes about home video

Count on the video re-release of "Withnail & I" to be celebrated by a heretofore secret society of devotees, a growing cult whose fanatical devotion to the film borders on the pathological.

Comedian Margaret Cho says she has seen the 1987 misfit British comedy more than 40 times. Paul Rudd, co-star of "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," claims to have seen it 60 times. Steve Martin simply calls it "one of the best comedies of the 1980s."

"Withnail & I" is available on the Anchor Bay Entertainment label for the suggested price of $14.95. That the video has been off the market five years has only fueled its underground status and made the original video release a prized commodity for retailers lucky enough to own a copy.

At Rocket Video on La Brea Avenue, a copy the store recently procured ("We paid a lot of money for it") has rented 26 times in less than a month. Since 1988, Vidiots in Santa Monica has gone through five copies (some wore out, others were stolen), which have cumulatively rented an estimated 955 times. One customer recently paid $200 for a copy.

It is with no understatement that Jay Douglas, Anchor Bay vice president of acquisitions, said, "We're glad to have the film. We feel we're doing a public service."

Not that he fully appreciated just what he had when he acquired "Withnail" as part of the Handmade Films library, which includes films with more consumer awareness and box-office cachet, including "The Long Good Friday" and "Mona Lisa" (already released) and "Time Bandits" and Monty Python's "Life of Brian" (next summer).

"The conventional thinking was the most commercial of the films would have been 'Time Bandits' and 'Life of Brian,' " Douglas said, "but the most calls we've gotten are about 'Withnail & I.' I'm still trying to figure out how I missed it the first time around."

He's not alone. The film grossed $1.4 million in its original U.S. run--a decent showing for an art-house film of that era--but it obviously has escaped the attention of much of the moviegoing public.

"Withnail & I" was directed by Bruce Robinson, an actor and writer who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for "The Killing Fields." The semiautobiographical "Withnail" was based on his experiences with a fellow drama student named Vivian, who, Robinson notes in the 10th-anniversary edition of the screenplay, "was brilliant at being Vivian."

Richard E. Grant, in his first film role, stars as the Byronesque Withnail, with Paul McGann as "I." They are decrepit young actors in 1969 London who are "drifting into the arena of the unwell" and who take an ill-fated holiday at the miserable country home of Withnail's flamboyantly grandiloquent Uncle Monty.

Grant said he faced two obstacles in getting the role. First, he was allergic to alcohol and didn't smoke cigarettes, two activities his character did to excess.

Second, Daniel Day-Lewis was up for the role, and at the time he had just gained acclaim for "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "A Room With a View."

"He was offered everything at that point," Grant said. "[But] he chose to do 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being.' When I worked with him on 'Age of Innocence,' I literally got down on my knees and said, 'Thank you, O Daniel.' "

In England, "Withnail & I" has inspired proselytes to make pilgrimages to the film's locations, such as Regent's Park in London, where a solitary Withnail delivers a climactic wine-enhanced soliloquy from "Hamlet" to a cage of wolves.

The film has also spawned a drinking game in which participants try to match drink for drink what the characters imbibe (the lighter fluid, which a desperate Withnail downs at one point, is not recommended).

It was serendipity that "Withnail" was re-released theatrically this year in England while Grant was touring the country to promote his published collection of film diaries.

"During the question-and-answer," he said in a phone interview, "the thing people wanted to know about was this movie--what you would think would totally be trivial, the most ridiculous information, they couldn't have enough of it. I said, 'What is wrong with you people, you're sick in the head.' "

Grant said he finds it extraordinary that this unassuming, low-budget film could arouse such ardor a decade later.

"At the time that we made it," he said, "they said the title would have to be changed. . . . There was no sex other than Richard Griffiths' Uncle Monty making assignations toward Paul McGann. It had none of the things that were supposed to make people go into a theater. But it just struck a chord in England in a way that nobody could have foreseen."

The "Withnail" phenomenon seems more like a subculture, rather than a community affair in the way of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Star Trek." In England, students make up much of the most passionate "Withnail" fan base, says Ian Nathan, an editor for Empire, a British film magazine that has long championed the movie.

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