Billy, Don’t Be an Antihero


Tom Courtenay is in every scene of two of the British new wave’s hallmark films, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar, embodying flip sides of the raucous era’s coin. In Loneliness he squints and seethes, chafing against authority like a north-country Brando and performing the ultimate (and richly ironic) act of rebellion against the status quo by simply standing still. Said Liar Billy Fisher is certainly an angry young man, prone to petulant outbursts as well as sudden fantasies in which he machine-guns inconvenient relatives, girlfriends, and employers. But he daydreams on his lower-bourgeois parents’ dime, and his recalcitrant stasis is purely self-subverting.

With cry-wolf consistency, Billy tells folks that he’s imminently moving to London to become a television scriptwriter. But the doubt in his voice seems preemptive, as does a host of problems he needs to cope with before fleeing his small town, among them a suspicious boss (as if to underline Billy’s own planned obsolescence, the script has him working as an undertaker’s clerk) and two insufferable fiancées unwittingly sharing both a man and a ring. Most problematically, Billy’s a pathological liar, a condition that seems to flow at once from boredom and the inevitable seepage of his fecund imagination into his workaday life. His willed hallucinations supplant the now; the nagging question through Billy Liar is whether they will also substitute for his future—which could include real dreamgirl Julie Christie (in her first significant film role), his indulgent third sweetheart.

Billy Liar, first released in 1963, often seems less a British new wave front-runner than a charming nouvelle vague tagalong, a coltish little brother to Breathless, from an early glimpse of Christie sashaying down a boulevard (swinging a stylish purse rather than Jean Seberg’s Herald-Tribune) to the puzzling sight of Billy mugging Belmondo-style into a mirror when he’s supposed to be searching for his grandmother’s heart medicine. John Schlesinger’s journeyman direction—nicely camouflaged by Film Forum’s crisp new print—lays out Billy’s subjectivity with only the thinnest surface of social context (always a troublesome area for Schlesinger, as anyone who’s ever sat through the mod posing of Darling can attest). Billy’s dramatized fantasies—he pictures himself as variously a dictator, returning war hero, and waving king of a faraway land called Ambrosia—evince a discomfitingly comfortable distance from World War II (especially in those creepy shoot-outs).

The film’s star power, however, is irresistible—and inspired Yo La Tengo’s luminous “Tom Courtenay” (the first words of which are “Julie Christie”), a kind of underdog answer-song to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Station.” Christie has very little to do and does it radiantly, and Courtenay remains one of the most inexplicable cases of early career stagnancy in English-language cinema. Marvelously alert to his surroundings while Billy pulls nervously ever inward, shifting between accents and class bearings with deft, piquant wit, Courtenay never tries to ingratiate himself with the audience. Billy is stubborn and not a little obtuse, but his escapist predicament is always poignantly clear, as is his helpless (and incongruous) complacency. As the YLT song goes, “Our hero finds his inner peace”; among the many splendored Brits showcased at Film Forum, Billy Fisher is perhaps the only scoffing lad about whom that could be said.

Largely inept and weirdly endearing, The Wolves of Kromer ponders the fate of two pouty, woods-dwelling young dudes banished from their provincial English village due to their pointy ears, hairy aspect (indicated by furry coats dug up from some velvet goldmine), swishing tails, and puppy love for each other. Replete with cackling witchy hags and a murderous closeted man of the cloth, the film is a fairy tale in every sense of the term; it’s barely coherent, but as a goofy allegory, it at least boasts the courage of its convictions.