When I first encountered Billy Liar in the early 1970s, I’d never heard of it. I’d somehow acquired a 16mm panned-and-scanned print, and was intrigued by both the title and cast. I certainly knew who Julie Christie was, and I vaguely remembered Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, so I ran it. I then ran it a second time. And then again and again, until I fell in love with it.
At first I was puzzled. I couldn’t understand the strange accents (this, mind you, was decades before the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh made us accustomed to odd English accents). But the more I ran it, and the more I understood the dialogue, I discovered that the movie was not only very, very funny (in a strange, English sort of way) but that I could also identify with the adolescent yearnings of the title character. Decades later, I’d discover that I wasn’t the only one.
When Keith Waterhouse’s comic novel Billy Liar was first published in 1959, rave reviews compared it favorably to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and other “youth cult novels.” Waterhouse, a 30-year-old newspaperman from the northern English city of Leeds, soon found himself among the new breed of northern working class writers—John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), John Braine (Room at the Top), Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), and other “angry young men” (a label they all loathed). Their work in the late ’50s revolutionized British literature and theater, and provided fodder for the New Wave of British cinema in the early ’60s, a movement led by such young directors as Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and John Schlesinger.
Soon after his book’s publication, Waterhouse teamed with playwright Willis Hall, an old school chum from Leeds, to adapt Billy for the stage. The team thought a rising young actor named Albert Finney would be ideal for the title role, but Finney was then being offered the lead in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. After much hemming and hawing, Finney decided to turn Lean down to play Billy on stage.
Billy Liar was less than a hit when it opened in the West End. But six weeks into the run, Reisz’s film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning opened, making an overnight sensation of its young star—Finney—and an “instant” hit of his current play.
Nine months into the run, Finney left the play, to be replaced by Tom Courtenay, who’d been with him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Waterhouse recalled in his memoirs, “It was fascinating to contrast their performances: Albert’s ‘I am star!’ Billy, Tom’s ‘I wish I were a star!’ Billy. Both interpretations are equally correct, for locked in Billy Fisher’s tangled psyche are both characters, star and nonentity.”
Even before the play was written, the film rights had been sold to Italian-born producer Joseph Janni. Janni had made Waterhouse a three-picture deal starting with A Kind of Loving (1962), a hit “kitchen sink” northern drama that marked the first feature for director John Schlesinger. Janni, Schlesinger, Waterhouse and Hall would follow this up with their film adaptation of Billy Liar.
For the role of Billy, a character that would be virtually owned by Finney and Courtenay, Schlesinger chose the more introverted Courtenay, who was about to emerge as a star with the release of Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Julie Christie, though not Schlesinger’s first choice, inhabited the role of Liz with a startlingly contemporary persona that was a breath of fresh air to both Billy’s oppressive town—and to British cinema itself.
The introduction of Liz became the film’s most famous sequence. David Shipman, in The Great Movie Stars, calls it “one of the most beguiling things in 60s cinema.” Shipman opens his entry on Christie with a description of the scene: “…a long fugue in which she wanders gaily through the streets of a northern town, swinging a large handbag. The sequence owes something to the Nouvelle Vague, and as that was a liberating movement, so is she a liberating spirit.”
Christie almost threatened to overshadow everything else about the movie. The critic for Newsweek was perhaps a little more fervent than most when he inserted the words “Julie Christie” between every line of the first paragraph of his review. (The New Yorker critic ended his Billy review presciently—“I hope that in her next movie [Miss Christie] is in London, in a charming flat, wearing exquisite clothes and speaking sentences that parse”—exactly describing her Oscar-winning role two years later in Schlesinger’s Darling.)
Drawing from his own adolescence in a similar Northern town, 26-year-old Courtenay—appearing in every scene—gave a tour de force performance, bringing off what Time magazine called “moments of pluperfect screen comedy.” In fact, Courtenay, who’d always felt more at home in the theater, wouldn’t make as big a splash in a film until The Dresser twenty years later.
Billy was also a triumph for Schlesinger, who cast it impeccably—down to the tiniest role—and gave it a style that set it apart from its contemporaries. The director also made the unusual choice of shooting Billy in Scope, which, he later explained, allowed for the “balloons” that pop up periodically during Billy’s daydreams. (Decades later, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott would write that the framing lent it something more: “The film’s wide perspective and deep focus…bestow on narrow, constricted lives the dignity and beauty of art.”)
Nineteen sixty-three had marked the very end of the first phase of the so-called British New Wave; what had seemed fresh and exciting in 1959 was now to many critics (and audiences) the same old stuff—dreary northern locations, by-now stereotyped working-class characters, and often-formulaic situations. But Billy managed to turn those same formulas around with comedy. John Naughton, also writing in the Times in 2000, observed that Billy’s tone was markedly different from the other British New Wave films of the time: “This is a movie stamped with a youthful, irreverent anarchism more akin to Lennon than Lenin.” Nominated for six British Academy Awards, the film spawned a hit West End musical, as well as a popular TV series, and in 2000 was included in the British Film Institute’s poll of the100 favorite British films of the 20th century.
But its U.S. premiere was less than a month after Kennedy’s assassination and two months before The Beatles arrived here—bad timing for a British comedy. Who knows how it would have fared in the post-Beatles era, when lads from the north of England were suddenly the center of the universe? (In Billy’s final scene, London’s Marylebone Station doubles as the local train station—the very station seen in the opening of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night a few months later. Add Christie’s character as the personification of the Swinging London movies to come, and Billy can be seen as the bridge between the two distinct styles of British movies of the ’60s.) But in late 1963, America was uninterested. Billy virtually disappeared following its initial run.
Thirty years later, acquiring films for Rialto Pictures, we decided to chance re-releasing Billy Liar theatrically, ordering new 35mm Scope prints from StudioCanal U.K. John Schlesinger was skeptical when we invited him to New York to help re-launch the film after 35 years. "Do you think anyone will show up?" he asked. So he was at first baffled––and then completely delighted—to be greeted by an enthusiastic, packed house. The reissue also exceeded our own expectations, receiving critical kudos and playing to adoring audiences night after night. It may have come almost 40 years too late for star and director, but Billy Liar finally found its American audience.