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'Billy Liar' Heads a Film Lineup Breaking British Stereotypes

Movies * The festival at the Nuart also includes 'A Taste of Honey,' 'Loneliness of Long Distance Runner,' 'Georgy Girl' and 'The L-Shaped Room.'

March 30, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the late '50s and early '60s the British movie industry was hit by a New Wave of filmsfrom directors such as Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson. They presented an England vastly different from the prim and proper Britain that had been depicted before in films.

Described as "kitchen sink" dramas, these films depicted the post-World War II working-class Britain inhabited by angry young men and women trapped in joyless jobs and relationships. Several writers also emerged during this cinematically rich period, including John Osborne, Frederic Raphael and Keith Waterhouse, as well as a new breed of rawly emotional young actors like Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Rita Tushingham and Julie Christie.

Starting today, the Nuart pays homage to these classic British films with an eclectic one-week festival. The crown jewel of the festival is a newly restored print of the 1963 fantasy "Billy Liar," starring Courtenay and Christie--in her first film. Directed by Schlesinger, "Billy Liar" screens today through Tuesday.

Screening Wednesday are 1962's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," directed by Richardson and starring Courtenay, and 1961's "A Taste of Honey," also directed by Richardson and starring Tushingham.

Rounding out the festival on Thursday are "Georgy Girl," with Lynn Redgrave and James Mason, and the 1963 drama "The L-Shaped Room," directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Leslie Caron in her Oscar-nominated role as a pregnant unwed young woman.

Mark Valen, film programmer for the Nuart, decided to devote a week to these classics when he was contacted by Rialto Pictures about their new restoration of "Billy Liar."

"[Rialto] wanted a five-day run for 'Billy Liar' because of the cost of the restoration." Valen says. "So I thought a couple of double features would kind of complement it."

'Liar' Was Largely Forgotten for Years

Most of the films in the festival rarely play the revival theater circuit. "Billy Liar" in particular has been largely forgotten over the decades. Based on the popular book and play by Waterhouse, "Billy Liar" is a charming comedy about a young man, Billy Fisher (Courtenay), who is stuck in a dreary job in an industrial town in the North of England. He escapes his drab existence by daydreaming, a la Walter Mitty.

Christie makes an indelible impression as Liz, a beautiful young woman who understands Billy's need to escape and wants him to come with her to London.

The restored print presents "Billy Liar" for the first time since its initial release in CinemaScope. Copies of the film only in pan-and-scan have been available.

Bruce Goldstein, the founder of Rialto Pictures--the boutique company that recently restored "Grand Illusion" and "The Third Man"--has been a fan of the film since he first saw it in the early '70s. Goldstein says the film's original negative was in decent shape, so there didn't have to be extensive restoration done to the film.

"CinemaScope is an odd aspect ratio for a film like this," Goldstein says. "Normally these [British films] are more intimate dramas, but Schlesinger wanted scope for those thought bubbles [Billy's dreams]. I thought it would be nice to show it in its original format. People respond to it a lot better that way."

Audiences and critics responded warmly to the restored "Billy" during a recent British New Wave Festival at Film Forum in New York. The enthusiastic reaction took Goldstein by surprise. "It's not that well-known," says Goldstein. "I didn't expect that much from it."

By phone from his home in London, Courtenay says when Goldstein sent him the great reviews for the restored "Billy," he ignored them. "I couldn't be bothered to read them," he says, laughing. "They were too late."

Courtenay explains that both "Billy Liar" and "Loneliness" weren't considered "classics" in their day.

"When 'Long Distance Runner' was released, it was my first film," he says. "I was highly praised because I was new. But director Tony Richardson wasn't. Then, of course, with 'Billy Liar,' I was no longer new."

The timing couldn't have been worse for its release of "Billy Liar" in America, soon after the assassination of President Kennedy. On a publicity visit to New York, Courte-nay soon discovered "there was no interest" in the film. "Likewise, at the Venice Film Festival they didn't get the jokes. It did well in England and in English-speaking countries, but not America."

Courtenay had played the part of Billy in the London stage production, replacing original star Finney. "I had fallen in love with it when I saw [the play]," says Courtenay, who like the character comes from a working-class background. "I saw Albert in it twice. It had so much to do with my own background and aspirations. I had been rehearsing for it all my life."

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