Culture

Film

‘Stan & Ollie’: a beautiful lie

By Adam Rivett
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are perfectly cast in this affectionate biopic

Biopics lie. This is not a criticism, or a denunciatory generalisation. This is what the genre does, what audiences expect of it. There life sits, a shapeless and graceless pile of dead ends, dead time and dead people. How to meaningfully organise it, or even convincingly suggest the passing of time? Find the famous, touch upon their highest moments and greatest falls, wring pathos from the final turn, and falsify the remainder. Outside of a few rare and form-breaking masterpieces – Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch comes to mind – it’s a genre born dead, a greatest-hits selection of pleasing but limited shape that denies the mess and colour of actual existence.

Having started so negatively, it should be noted that Stan & Ollie is a charming and occasionally moving film: a beautiful lie. It does honour to a fundamentally dishonourable form, and when compared to something like the wretched Bohemian Rhapsody (a film so fundamentally dishonest and manipulative that a saner universe would shun it, instead of feeding it money and awards), it’s an outright triumph. Perhaps a small measure of its charm relies on where its attention falls. Unlike, say, the triumphalist Rhapsody, Stan & Ollie’s focus is humble and chastened: ageing and failure. Yet this very question of its focus also underpins the film’s biggest problem. While the film’s affection towards its central figures is evident in every frame, I’m not sure it’s the most honest representation of that which it aims to celebrate. Or, to put it another way, in the language of the fan: this isn’t my Laurel and Hardy.

The film’s strengths and weaknesses are evident from its opening moments, where, in a bravura single-take opening shot, we follow Laurel and Hardy from their dressing room, through the studio backlot, and on to the set of their 1937 classic Way Out West, all while they discuss their lives, relationships, leisure time and, most crucially, their pay packets. As an example of the biopic’s unnatural force, it’s hard to beat – a radical compacting of time and theme, put over beautifully by cinematographer Laurie Rose and stars Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. However, it’s the short dance sequence that ends this scene, a dance that returns several times throughout the film, that’s the problem. Isolated, it stands as a slight, amusing bit of comedic play, a throwaway shuffle, but it misrepresents the antic, cruel energy that defined the duo’s best work. The Laurel and Hardy presented in Stan & Ollie are doddering vaudevillians, fond of wheezy punchlines and gentle miscommunications. While taking into account the film’s setting – an initially dismal 1953 tour of England, made long after their stars have faded and their finances have run down – it’s an image (the dancing fools, the tapping idiots) the film is happy to suggest stands in for the whole, going so far as to play the original non-recreated 1937 footage at one point.

Here we encounter another biopic lie, and a slightly more troubling one. While childish and playful was one of Laurel and Hardy’s modes, they were more often broad, mean, vicious, violent and desperate. Most of their numerous shorts and features present either a pair on the make, bouncing from scheme to scheme, henpecked doofuses repeatedly outwitted by their wives, or a kind of Hamm and Clov act of mutual loathing and necessary communion. They were frequently violent and petty, and had that same wrath turned against them at every turn. Their films don’t just portray work, but are a kind of frenzied work in themselves, a shaking of the comedic can – they strain for effect, they play to the back row. This makes much of their work almost too broad when compared with the subtlety and nuance of other silent or early comedy masters, but, in the right mood, there’s a hustling “anything for a laugh” energy to Laurel and Hardy that makes the best of their work – the two-reelers Helpmates or The Music Box, or features Sons of the Desert or Block-Heads – equal to any other comedy of their era.

Hardy’s reaction to every indignity handed him – a sustained look at the camera, put upon and put out – summarises the pair’s relationship with their audience perfectly, while Laurel’s spacey dimwittedness sugars the pill. In the modern lingo, these boys were grinders. We tend to think of the silent and early sound comedians as units definable by single type – Chaplin’s pathos, Fields’ vinegar, Keaton’s stoicism, The Marx Brothers’ verbosity – but the best L&H films are a curious hybrid of all these styles: a few great one-liners, some ingenious physical comedy and a sprinkling of misanthropy. Whatever works.

In the place of this mania, what Stan & Ollie offers is an older and slower version of the great performers, and whatever one finally thinks of this decision, the film stands as a collection of beautiful performances and loving period detail. Rufus Jones as Laurel and Hardy’s British tour manager, Bernard Delfont, is a wonderful study in smarm and gladhanding, while Shirley Henderson as Hardy’s wife, Lucille, and Nina Arianda as Laurel’s wife, Ida, form their own deft comic pairing. Finally, however, the success or failure of a film like this comes down to its central performances, and both John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan are perfectly cast.

It’s been received wisdom for a while now that Coogan, creator of one of television’s greatest characters and possessor of a brilliant comic mind, should have been a bigger movie star. It’s a belief that Coogan himself has been happy to toy with regularly, from his wonderfully excruciating performance in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes to the vanity and need artfully exploited in Michael Winterbottom’s three The Trip films. His turn as an ageing Stan Laurel – unable to attract producers, full of resentment at being usurped by a younger generation – is another wonderful addition to these almost self-portraits. While he doesn’t nail every gesture, and his sharper features at times fail to perfectly resemble Laurel – and honestly, what actor could capture Laurel’s moony, guileless face, that perfect embodiment of affable idiocy? – what Coogan does capture is Laurel’s perfectionist pride, and the strained affection that often sits at the heart of a sustained partnership.

As for Reilly, his weary and failing Hardy is a compelling portrait of good-humoured fallibility. Like Coogan, it’s a performance made of echoes. So much of Hardy’s humour derived from his willingness to be dunked, tumbled, and terrified. Reilly’s approach for so much of his career has operated on the same principle – his is a presence devoid of airs, up for anything; whether it’s his ridiculous spa poem in Boogie Nights, the clueless enthusiasm of Tim and Eric’s Dr Steve Brule, or even his voice work in Wreck-It Ralph. Like so many of his earlier roles, Reilly imbues Hardy with an enormous kindness and dignity, while never making a one-dimensional oaf out of a complicated figure.

This is an impressive and beautifully crafted film – “handsomely mounted” as the language of Oscar season would have it. Jon S. Baird’s direction is sensitive and restrained, miles away from the tiresome frenetic edginess of his previous film, the Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth. Laurie Rose’s cinematography is by turns lustrous and musty, deeply evocative of a lost moment in time. I’m doubtful if the film will make any new fans out of the unconverted, but that, perhaps, is too great an ask, and not in the biopic brief to begin with. The biopic trades in the human angle, the illusion of the artist revealed. As for all those actual films, well, there they sit on shelves, or, more likely, now coded and waiting to be streamed; a joyous and inspiring jumble of triumphs and dead ends, cheap laughs and high art. As Laurel rightly observes at a key moment in Stan & Ollie, the work is all that matters in the end.

 

Stan & Ollie is in cinemas now.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in Stan & Ollie

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