Pants on fire

John Schlesinger’s classic of ’60s grittiness turns desolation into daydreams.

Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a young man whose rich inner life is a reaction to his dreary surroundings and prospects. In reality he lives with his parents and senile grandmother in a working-class area of northern England, in a town where the wrecking ball is constantly at work knocking down old communal buildings to make room for new and featureless high-rises. But in his imagination, he’s the supreme ruler of a country called Ambrosia, the object of mass adulation and the head of endless victory parades. Most people exercise some sort of complicated tyranny in their daydreams, but Billy has eliminated all the subterfuge. He wants to be a happy dictator, pure and simple.

Unfortunately Ambrosia doesn’t use up all of Billy’s imaginative powers and, since he’s too undisciplined to do anything creative (he plans to write a book but can barely get past the title), the surplus takes the form of continual and pointless lying. This explains the two fiancees, the imaginary sister, the heroically injured father and the dozens of calendars he was supposed to mail for his funeral-parlor employer, but which he now finds himself flushing down toilets and throwing into ravines. He’s somehow managed to spend the postal money, no doubt figuring that a suitable lie would save him when he’s found out.

Billy Liar (1963) is one of the pinnacles of that brief period in British films when kitchen sinks and the angry lower classes were being featured in an outburst of post-Empire reckoning. Since Billy is a comedy, its element of social critique is a bit muted, but it delivers both in little touches (like the plummy voice of a BBC announcer coming over the radio at a sweaty construction site) and in larger ones (like Billy’s passive-aggressive hatred of the people around him). The film was directed by John Schlesinger, who was to have a good 10 years or so (Darling, Midnight Cowboy, etc.) before losing his way. He introduced Julie Christie in her first featured role as Billy’s possible way out of Hicksville, and gave Courtenay the role of his early career. Courtenay’s Billy is a sympathetic weasel, a sharp mind in a dull landscape, hooked on the drug of his fantasies and totally lost.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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