Sep. 23, 2008
Billy Liar (1963)
Grade: 57/100

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie

What it's about. How others will see it. Set in England. Tom Courtenay is a young man who daydreams he is the figurehead of Ambrosia, a mythical European nation. The daydreams are certainly better than his real life. He is anxiously juggling three girlfriends, angry blonde Gwendolyn Watts, naive big-chested brunette Helen Fraser, and free spirit Julie Christie, the only woman who actually understands him.

His family life isn't much better. His father, Wilfred Pickles, has contempt for him and constantly belittles him. His mother, Mona Washbourne, treats him better but is well aware of his deficiencies. The final family member is Ethel Griffies, Courtenay's doddery grandmother.

Courtenay hopes to get a job writing scripts for well known comedian Leslie Randall. But that is a long shot, and Courtenay's day job is disastrous. Given the task of mailing calendars, he instead concealed them and embezzled the postage money. This may explain his desire to leave town for London. Yet he can't bring himself to leave home, perhaps lacking confidence in his ability to support himself.

Billy Liar was nominated for six British Academy Awards, and helped launch the careers of actress Julie Christie and director John Schlesinger. Tom Courtenay, the lead, was already well known because of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, made the year before.

How I felt about it. Billy Liar has been compared to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously, both films feature a lead character who daydreams, but the movies are otherwise dissimilar. Walter Mitty was harmless and intended for laughs. Courtenay, though, is hardly a comic figure. In fact, he's perpetually desperate, always looking for an easy way out of the trouble he is continually mired in. He's tell a lie or neglect an obligation to buy additional time, in the hopes that his problems will somehow solve themselves. He's old enough to know better, that small lies lead to larger lies that lead to humiliating truths. But he lacks the courage or discipline to confront or work through the consequences of his own behavior.

It is true that if a decision is postponed indefinitely, one will be made for you. For example, if you are engaged to two different women, at least one will break the engagement given sufficient disappointment. The downside is that you look like the fool you are, when your romantic shenanigans are on display at the local club for everyone to see (and disapprove or laugh at).

We don't find out what happens to Courtenay because of his theft (of stamps and calendars) from his funeral director employer, Leonard Rossiter. Presumably, Courtenay's father, Wilfred Pickles, pays off Rossiter, but not before severely tongue lashing Courtenay at least one more time. More importantly, we don't know whether Courtenay can mend his ways. He may have to enlist in the Army after all.