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A British Triumph, an American Oversight

Movies * John Schlesinger's 1963 comedy 'Billy Liar' gets a second look at a New York screening.

November 27, 2000|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Surfing on the crest of the British cinema's New Wave, John Schlesinger's "Billy Liar" arrived here in late 1963, smack between the psychological trauma of John F. Kennedy's assassination and the Beatles' six-string-caliber coup de gra^ce of the entire postwar period. Not the best timing for a satirical comedy, or any comedy, or any film at all.

It's a film that has, however, attained iconic status in England, for several good reasons: It was director Schlesinger's first big hit, a coup for Tom Courtenay, the film that introduced Julie Christie to the moviegoing public--and it's funny. "Billy Liar" was also named one of the 100 best British films ever by the British Film Institute. And its story--of pathological fantasist Billy Fisher and his problematic dream life--holds a prominent place in a particular arc of social satire that begins with Walter Mitty and ends with Rupert Pupkin.

Here, however, the movie was treated like rubbish--seen, if seen at all, panned and scanned, deprived of the grandeur of its original CinemaScope. Until last week, that is, when "Billy Liar" was resurrected by Rialto Pictures and returned in full wide-screen glory to Manhattan's Film Forum.

With it came Schlesinger himself, who may be the most soft-spoken man in films but was quite illuminating, especially about the movie's place in time.

"It was really a great period of destruction and reconstruction," the 74-year-old director said at a Manhattan hotel. "That's a running theme for Billy throughout the film. There's the life he wants to take apart and reconstruct, but he isn't able to do so. I think that's what gave me the idea for this constant image."

Postwar Feeling of Freedom

The image--of wrecking balls and collapsing architecture--gives the new millennial observer the idea that Schlesinger was commenting either on the new world taking shape at the dawn of the 1960s or the legacy of World War II on men too young to have taken part. Swinging London, after all, was right around the corner; World War I produced its own "lost generation."

"That's such a cliche, the swinging '60s," said the director, who began that decade with his first feature, "A Kind of Loving," and ended it with "Midnight Cowboy." "But there was a tremendous feeling of freedom after the war. I wasn't consciously saying anything about a lost generation. I belonged to a generation that wasn't lost, but was being reconstructed--rebuilding was a constant in our minds. But we were a generation of latecomers; after military service, going to university, the changes of life came over us later than it would have for most people."

The "us" Schlesinger speaks of would include Lindsay Anderson, director of the original London stage production of "Billy Liar," a play by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall based on the Waterhouse novel. Albert Finney originated the role of Billy, to be followed by Courtenay, whose short-burning star had been ignited by Tony Richardson's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." But it was Christie who probably got the most out of it all--her introduction, swinging her pocketbook through the streets of Billy's constipated Northern English town (there's that swinging theme again), is the film's most famous single scene.

And, as seems to be the case with so many legendary movie

moments, it almost never happened. Schlesinger, who had been making documentaries for the BBC, was going to make one about a group of senior drama students at London's Central School, including a "very eye-catching" actress named Julie Christie. But he got sidetracked and ended up devoting his film to another class entirely.

Later, when casting was proceeding on "Billy Liar"--and "not so well"--Schlesinger said he pointed at a magazine cover and said, "We need someone like that." "That," of course, was Christie, whom Schlesinger still didn't cast until his original actress had a nervous breakdown. "I was a bit myopic," he admits.

Which is strange, because he's a director who finds his way through visual keys. "I always like to make use of an image that's going to set the audience in a certain time and place." In "Marathon Man," he said, it involved garbage strikes in Paris. ("My producer said, 'Why do you want all this garbage around in Paris? It ruins the beauty.' I said, 'That's the point.' ") In "Midnight Cowboy," it was far simpler: "Neon."

And in "Billy Liar"? The wrecking ball or the pocketbook? "I don't think it was either," Schlesinger said. "But it certainly wasn't the pocketbook."

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