In Northern England, Billy Fisher lives with his parents and ailing elderly grandmother, is secretly engaged to two women both of whom he tries hard to avoid, and works as a clerk for an undertaker from whose office he has pilfered a large sum of money he was supposed to use to mail calendars to clients. Life has Billy squarely in a choke hold. He fancies himself a writer, in which capacity, he deludes himself and others into believing, a popular television comedian has hired him. Indeed, Billy’s imagination nurtures shafts of all sorts of fancies and delusions, most of which revolve around himself as an heroic figure in a make-believe realm called Ambrosia. Barring fantasy, his is a dead-end life.
Exploring the gray existence of a monotonously employed working-class youth, John Schlesinger’s sour satire is agile and expert at juggling harsh reality and Billy’s pieces of imaginative escape from it; but these are too fragmentary to suggest the chunks of daydream that visit Walter Mitty. Billy will not be saved by any through-line of plot.
Schlesinger was a perpetual adolescent so nasty that he once mailed feces to a critic who had painstakingly analyzed one of his films (Midnight Cowboy, 1969). In any case, his dark, uninvolving, tedious Billy Liar is based on the play by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, which in turn was based on Waterhouse’s novel. Albert Finney, a wonderful actor with charm as well as talent, originated the role on stage, with Tom Courtenay his understudy; Courtenay, who is bereft of charm or talent, plays Billy here—insipidly. Quite marvelous, though, is Mona Washbourne as Billy’s mum. However, the film is most famous for launching the career of Julie Christie, who plays the one woman whom Billy desires, Liz, who tries to get Billy to start fresh, with her, in London. Liz is, likely, a total fabrication, a creature solely of Billy’s imagination. She thus joins the first two “real” fiancées, to neither of whom Billy can commit, in what is essentially a schematic spectacle of his denial of his homosexuality, which is repressed. Schlesinger, who was openly gay, may have felt that this wrinkle in Billy’s troubled life is what holds Billy down and keeps him at home—in the wardrobe, along with the calendars, as it were.
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