William Terrence “Billy” Fisher (played by Tom Courtenay): “Today's a day of big decisions —going to start writing me novel—2000 words every day, going to start getting up in the morning.”
[Looks at his overgrown thumbnail]
Billy: “I'll cut that for a start. Yes... today's a day of big decisions.”— Billy Liar (1963), screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, adapted from their play based on the novel by Waterhouse, directed by John Schlesinger
This quote will make more than a few writers chuckle. They will read in this not merely Billy’s daydream, but also the daily temptation interfering with serious work. It separates, say, the professional who struggles to translate his dreams into reality—say, F. Scott Fitzgerald—from the millions who stops before getting started, such as Walter Mitty.
Speaking of the latter: Ben Stiller’s remake of the fondly recalled 1947 adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will, I fear after watching a trailer, do to that film what Adam Sandler did to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: violate the warm memories of a perfectly fine cinematic property.
As I dourly ruminated on that this past weekend, I was reminded of another film about a man who escapes from dull reality through daydreams in which he plays multiple roles: the 1963 British film Billy Liar. It premiered in the U.K. early in 1963, but was not released widely in the U.S. until this month a half century ago.
The John Schlesinger film represents a watershed in cinema history. At first glance, it seems merely another in the “angry young man” works that had come to dominate Britain in the last half dozen years before its release: novels, plays and movies about proletarian males stuck in lifeless jobs, with girlfriends who’ll tie them down further, in a film medium that, like the characters’ lives, are without color. Even Billy’s work environment—clerk in an undertaker’s office in Britain’s North Country—is, literally, deadening.
But unlike these other works, Billy Liar generates laughs about the lazy, irresponsible teenage who escapes from hectoring parents, two fiancees and a hectoring boss into the mythical land of Ambrosia. It also has a shaft of real sunlight: a third girl, Liz, who offers love, encouragement and hope—and, in the person of Julie Christie (seen here with Courtenay), a transitional figure into a new age, even a new world.
In fact, I would argue that Ms. Christie, if not perhaps the Fifth Beatle, certainly symbolized the liberated sense of fun and possibilities of life that the Fab Four brought to their nation and the world. In fact, there is a visual link between the two, as attested to by this article in the U.K.’s Coventry Telegraph marking the 50th anniversary of the appearance of The Beatles at Coventry Theatre, where the group met the up-and-coming actress backstage.
Christie was worried throughout the filming of Billy Liar that she was making the worst possible impression onscreen. Just how irrational that fear was can be gauged by her first appearance in the film.
Earlier, we’ve been told that she is the type of “crazy” girl who “goes wherever she likes,” leaving one job and town behind for another. Such dialogue becomes superfluous once Christie starts walking down the high street of this drab town, humming a tune and swinging her handbag. She skips over cracks in the paving stones as nimbly, you suspect, as she will over obstacles in her way. A long way geographically from mod London, she is, mentally, just around the corner from it.
Schlesinger shot this scene verite style, catching the startled looks of actual members of a crowd, not actors, at the sight of the radiant actress. He had translated onto celluloid the essence of a young woman who, in real life, had learned habits of self-reliance and independence at English boarding schools, camping on friends’ cots while attending drama school without a scholarship, and protesting in Human Rights Day.
The crowd members in that seminal scene were falling in love with Christie the way the audience would, in only 12 minutes all told onscreen. She was wordlessly but amply demonstrating why Al Pacino would later call her "the most poetic of all actresses."
As the quote above indicates, the day will indeed be one of "big decisions” for Billy, who throws away his chance to join Liz (and realize his own TV writing ambitions) on her journey out of the town. The audience didn’t make the same mistake. John Walsh’s perceptive article in the U.K.’s Independent termed Christie “The Girl Who Showed the Way to the Future.” It’s an apt phrase for one of the glories of Sixties British cinema.