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Billy Liar is a sterling time capsule, an embodiment of a specific time (the early 1960s) and place (England’s upper counties) in British pop history. Watching it today on the Criterion Collection’s recently issued DVD, one can’t help but feel privy to someone’s private memories about what it was like to be a young man or woman in that heady era. Britain was about to elect its first Socialist prime minister; the Beatles were about to break through on the international music scene; and British youth everywhere were on the verge of renouncing the cultural repression that had enslaved them since the end of World War II. It was also the era of the working class, when at long last there was a sense of social mobility and there was the notion that hard work and imagination were enough to get you places. All of this is declared in Billy Liar not through rhetoric but through clothing, hairstyles, music, even ways of walking down the street. Together they make up the period detail of the time, and if Billy Liar feels dated for some, it never feels corny. This was the real Cool Britannia: suave, sexy, and confidant.

Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar.
When Billy Liar was released in 1963, it was part of the so-called British New Wave, a movement spanning the 1960s in which many British films achieved critical and commercial success abroad. One of its prominent members was John Schlesinger, a young director whose 1962 film A Kind of Loving starring Alan Bates, was a hit. Schlesinger and his producer Joseph Janni had recently acquired the rights to a West End play about a working-class youth, played by a young Albert Finney, who escapes his dreary existence by daydreaming and concocting fabulist lies. The play was called Billy Liar, and Schlesinger and Janni planned to bring it to the movie screen. The screenplay adaptation was written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (who both wrote the play; Waterhouse wrote the novel on which the play is based). By the time cameras were ready to roll, Finney had left the play and was replaced by a 26-year-old actor named Tom Courtenay. Schlesinger chose Courtenay over Finney for the film, preferring his Billy to be a smaller person physically, less sure of himself emotionally, and altogether more desperate and hopeful.

Billy Liar is many things: comedy, fantasy, social commentary. Billy Fisher, a blond-haired young man, lives with his parents in their working-class neighborhood in Northern England. By day he works as an accountant in a funeral parlor, but what occupies most of his time are his daydreams, which range from short bursts of imagination (he sees himself gunning down his nagging parents) to fully developed scenarios featuring himself as the leader of Ambrosia, a fictitious military state. Schlesinger visualizes Billy’s fantasies, and he jumps seamlessly between reality and fiction as if to suggest Billy’s own pipe dream state of mind. It’s both comical and sinister, evoking the adventures of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty but also Victorian horror stories in which dreams become nightmares and good men are led astray by their fantasies. But as Schlesinger and Courtenay are quick to point out in their audio commentary, Billy is far too innocent for any real harm to come from his daydreaming.

Tom Courtenay and Gwendolyn Watts in Billy Liar.
Part of his innocence is rooted in his powerlessness towards his parents, both of whom undermine his individuality in different ways. His father (Wilfred Pickles) is a callous man who insults Billy’s lack of career motivation and his dependence on them. His mother (Mona Washbourne) is less critical, but her constant fussing about has turned Billy into a momma’s boy. The scene where they have breakfast together is observant in the way minor things can become major irritations; that their conversations always devolve into shouting matches comes as no surprise. At work, Billy’s boss Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) is a self-absorbed efficiency expert who’s too wrapped up in the latest funeral technologies (he is obsessed with a new plastic coffin) to notice that his own employees are making fun of him.

With its cynical view of the adult world, Billy Liar is made by and designed for the young at heart. A case in arrested development, Billy is an overgrown kid who’s lack of a positive adult influence in his life has left him with no choice but to retreat into his own imaginary world when the real one feels too, well, real. At times, the movie’s inclination towards adult archetypes can feel downright immature. Billy’s grandmother, for instance, hobbles around the house talking to herself and muttering insults beneath her breath. When she suffers a heart attack, it’s played as a comedy: Billy, looking for her heart medication, pauses just long enough in front of a mirror to make clown faces. Billy clearly harbors a lot of hostility towards his elders, hostility which never finds a proper release and can only manifest itself in the forms of fantasy and humor. As much as Billy wishes to free himself of his parents and Shadrack, he finds solace in his very personal form of rebellion. To find real freedom would be too much for Billy, a fact which Courtenay captures in his uncomplicated, straightforward performance.

DVD cover artwork for Billy Liar.
[click photo for larger version]

As the title states, Billy is a proficient liar, a skill he’s developed partly as a result of juggling three separate "girlfriends." He’s engaged to Barbara (Helen Fraser), a bucked tooth goodie-goodie who incessantly refers to him as "pet" and who is determined to save her virginity for her wedding day. Billy has also proposed to Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), a different sort of girl altogether, a harpy with an acid tongue and frosted hair who stalks Billy relentlessly in search of the elusive diamond ring he’s promised her. Billy spends much of the movie trying to avoid both, and there’s a nice extended sequence in which he tries to drug Barbara in order to steal her ring to give to Rita. It doesn’t work. Billy seems hopelessly caught between two women neither of whom he loves.

And then there’s Liz. Liz is Billy’s fantasy girl, beautiful, free-spirited, seemingly untouched by the ugliness of their hometown. More friends then lovers, Billy and Liz are dreamers from two very different worlds. He is eternally rooted in the working-class while she is a creature of mod London. Played by Julie Christie in her breakthrough screen performance, Liz enters the movie swinging her handbag, her hair uncombed, skipping to a stylish ‘60s beat. It’s one of the most famous entrances in cinema, and for Christie, it would forever associate her with the swinging ‘60s. The fact that Liz is interested at all in Billy is the true fantasy, observes Christie in her audio commentary. Liz was ahead of her time, eschewing the conservative dress that so many young women wore in favor of a disheveled look that she somehow managed to turn into a fashion statement.

Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white Cinemascope, Billy Liar was theatrically re-released last year by Rialto Pictures. The new 35mm print was struck from the original master, as was the digital transfer for this DVD release. The widescreen image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) ironically gives space and depth to Billy’s claustrophobic existence without ever losing the intimacy of the performances. The DVD also features excerpts from a BBC special about the British New Wave. The audio commentaries by Schlesinger, Courtenay, and Christie are insightful if somewhat nostalgic. The movie, they all seem to agree, has taken on a life of its own. Documenting specific lives and broader social trends with humor and accuracy, Billy Liar captures a dynamic, pulsating era in recent history, an era which moviegoers seem to have forgotten.


Billy Liar is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer (aspect ratio 2.35:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc's special features include excerpts from "Northern Lights," an episode of the BBC series Hollywood U.K.: British Cinema in the Sixties, hosted by Richard Lester; audio commentary by director John Schlesinger and stars Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.