© 2006 William Ahearn
In England, from the mid-50s to the early 1960s, the work of the so-called Angry Young Men fascinated theatre and film audiences. These were down and dirty narratives of the class wars and they defined British culture for a generation. They would also erode the Hays Production Code in the US as American ticket buyers wondered why Hollywood wasn’t making films about real people in real situations. Playwright John Osborne, who wrote the play Look Back in Anger is probably the best known of the Angry Young Men but other writers such as Alan Stillitoe, David Storey, John Braine and Shelagh Delaney contributed just as much and probably more.
Of all the films in this bunch, Tony Richardson’s “A Taste of Honey” based on Shelagh Delaney’s play remains the most powerful. Richardson was a producer and director whose contributions to the Angry Young Men consisted of producing Alan Stillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and producing and directing “A Taste of Honey,” John Osborne’s “Look Back In Anger” and “The Entertainer” and Stillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” As with most of Richardson’s films during this period, the author of the original work usually wrote the screenplay and the grit of the films reflect the desire to maintain what drove the work to begin with.
“A Taste of Honey” is the story of a young white underclass girl who gets impregnated by a black sailor. (It starred Rita Tushingham in her debut role.) Her single mother is an aging party girl and her best friend is a young homosexual. In the US at the time – 1961 – half of this movie couldn’t have been produced and the rest would be played as the tragedy of a good girl gone bad. But Delaney wrote it straight out and Richardson delivered a very funny movie that doesn’t pretend to have a social agenda or slow itself down in liberal apologia.
(One historical oddity: That song. If you’re a fan of ‘60’s music, you’ve undoubtedly heard some variation of the song “A Taste of Honey.” The Beatles did it. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass did it. Martin Denny did it. Tony Bennett did it. It was everywhere. Except in the movie. The film inspired the composers to write the tune and it came out after the movie was released.)
The best Hollywood had to offer at the time was the overrated and overwrought “Rebel Without A Cause” directed by Nicholas Ray. To see Ray’s “Rebel” now is to see what seems like the most intense episode of the American TV show “Happy Days.” How “Rebel” maintains its status as a classic is way beyond me. If James Dean had lived to a ripe old age, I doubt anyone would think twice about this film.
One of the problems of bringing staged works to film – besides the obvious difference in location possibilities – is translating the language of playwrights into the more naturalistic speech patterns of the cinema. Playwrights tend to write speeches and conversations that appear stilted on film. In “A Taste of Honey” Richardson nailed it. But “Look Back in Anger” and “The Entertainer” still retain some of the staginess of the originals and even a great cast can’t shake the staginess from their voices. They’re still worth watching but if you watch these films as a group, “A Taste of Honey” will just slip across the screen as the story unfolds.
It’s difficult to talk about the films of Tony Richardson and not mention one of the strangest movies that he – or anyone else – ever made. “The Loved One” (1965) is based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh and the script is by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood (whose I Am A Camera became the basis for “Cabaret”). Check out the cast: Robert Morse, Jonathon Winters, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn, John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Rod Steiger, Liberace, and the list goes on. (There is also Jamie Farr from the TV show “M*A*S*H in a non-speaking part.) The incredible Haskell Wexler is the director of photography and it shows in every frame. It’s a satire of the funeral industry, English manners in a boorish Los Angeles, and numerous other things and Richardson keeps it subtle and moving right along. It just never clicked with audiences and its probably because it’s unlike other comedies and satires in the way it’s presented. This isn’t slapstick or cardboard characters that give you permission to laugh. To me, that just makes it all the more funnier. Not many other people seem to agree.
Richardson wasn’t the only director plumbing the anger in post-war England. Lindsay Anderson directed “This Sporting Life” written by David Storey. (Storey also wrote the play The Contractor that was produced for PBS decades ago. It’s a very interesting piece of theatre.) “This Sporting Life” is the story of the rise of a star rugby player. It is a brutal and depressing film and if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll love this flick. It’s really well done with a notable performance by Richard Harris.
“Room at the Top,” is also a well-known film from this era, starring Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret. Based on a novel by John Braine and directed by Jack Clayton, it’s the story of a social-climbing ex-prisoner of war who will do anything to rise above his working-class background. A cautionary tale more than anything else, it suffers from some bizarre decisions. The story should take place in 1946 but it was shot over ten years later and so the main character would have been too young to be in the war. The acting is really good – check out Hermione Badderley in one of her excellent character roles. At this point, the story just seems overplayed and dated.
Alan Stillitoe’s “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” is directed by Karel Reisz, a guy who seems to have better things to do than push actors around. In the last 50 or so years, he’s only directed thirteen flicks and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “Who’ll Stop The Rain” are examples of his work. His oddest film has to be “Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment.” When I was at Harpur College we used to get stoned and watch this film. In the late-‘60s to early ‘70s, it was something of a political comedy classic. This is the film with the Communist artist running around in a gorilla suit, if that rings a bell. It doesn’t really hold up too well but it’s worth it if you’re a fan of quirky English comedies.
“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” is the story of a completely unsatisfied and pissed off worker. It’s Albert Finney’s first starring role and this flick is worth it for the acting alone. Stillitoe is one of my favorites so I’m partial to the this-is-how-it-is attitude of the movie. This is an excellent example of the Angry Young Men and how they influenced the culture of early ‘60s England.
Of all the flicks that came out of England in those days, it was “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” that would change my life. Movies had always been a fascinating diversion for me, an escape from my suffocating family and the petty criminal distractions of an early-1960s working class neighborhood in New York City.
One night I’m up late – I guess I was about fifteen years old then – and there’s a Brit flick on the local PBS station, Channel 13. For the first time I had a cinematic experience that was truly personal. The story is simple: A young working class rebel named Colin Smith (Tom Courtney) is sent to reform school for robbing a bakery and is groomed by the reformatory warden (played by Michael Redgrave) to win a long distance race against a respected private school where the students are free and there by choice. Smith is given privileges unavailable to the other boys. He can run without a minder, gets better food, and is treated with some deference by the other boys and the guards.
At some point about midway through the flick, I was overtaken by a sense of dread. Colin Smith was someone who I could feel a real affinity toward, I could talk to this guy, I could bang around the railroad tracks and the windblown beaches with this guy and somehow I felt a sellout ending to the flick on the horizon. But I hung in there and for the first time a film spoke directly to me, showed how I hoped I would act in a similar situation, didn’t muck up a simple tale of real rebellion with blathering sociologists who attempt to relate to and understand how Colin thinks. For once, it wasn’t about them. It was about us: All the angry, semi-delinquents who despised this culture and all the empty suits with their spin, their keys and their guns. I’m almost tempted to use the word affirming but that word has been gutted by the soulless therapy survivors.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” isn’t a great film but it is one of my favorites and seeing it again recently brought back so many memories that it will be one of those films that I’ll need to see more often. “Cool Hand Luke” is a lame attempt at similar material. Colin Smith is a troubled young man in a hopeless situation; Lucas Jackson is just an empty angry self-important jerk. It’s amazing to me that American audiences love the doomed so-called rebel. Randle Patrick McMurphy from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a perfect example. As is Lisa Rowe from “Girl Interrupted.” Jack Nicholson and Angelina Jolie won Academy Awards for their performance and they’re both performers whose work I admire. Paul Newman was nominated but didn’t win and if you check the 1968 winners, you’ll see why.
Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Oscar for “Snake Pit” but she didn’t have her brains blown out or get strapped down for life so she didn’t win either.
Jackson, McMurphy and Rowe are pretty much empty characters. That is no reflection upon the actors who play them. It has to do with the content of the film. The films essentially say that you either have to be a loser or insane to go up against the system and if you do, the system will either kill you or hook your brain up to a car battery. And it’s also important for the hero not to have any political solutions since that will just split the affinities of the beautiful loser-loving audience. In effect, “Cool Hand Luke,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl Interrupted” are anti-rebel movies and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” isn’t. And it accomplishes its rebellious end without violence or overwrought drama or false victories. It is at heart a subversive flick and that’s one of the reasons that it’s one of my favorites.
While watching “Good Will Hunting” I thought of the Richardson flick and knew – casting Robin Williams was a dead giveaway – that it would end up as the typical Hollywood sellout. That film had such potential to be a real flick about intelligence and class and they just pissed it away and it’s one of those movies that just made me angry when it was over.
Colin Smith isn’t killed at the end of the movie and he doesn’t have his mind erased or his brain lobes butchered. It’s their game but he wins it on his own terms in a beautiful and simple way.
And that’s what makes “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” such a remarkable film. It tells the story of Colin Smith the way it needs to be told and could care less whether or not you approve.
And that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a flick.