Blog Directory CineVerse: Meet Billy, master house of cards builder

Meet Billy, master house of cards builder

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Billy Liar, one of the great charlatans of cinema and the subject of a fascinating early 1960s British comedy by director John Schlesinger. Our CineVerse group took a trip to the UK last week (metaphorically speaking) to investigate this underappreciated gem of a movie and came away with the following discoveries (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, refreshing, or fulfilling about Billy Liar?

  • The picture is one of several British New Wave films, influenced by the French New Wave that came before it. British New Wave movies adopted a cinema variety/documentary approach, favored social realism, and were often shot in real locations – in Billy Liar, that meant Yorkshire and Bradford.
  • Billy Liar also belongs to a subgenre called the “angry young men” movie, which commonly depicted working-class male characters disheartened by contemporary society. These films often tackled social, political, and cultural problems and emphasized a gritty, realistic look and vibe.
  • This proved to be an early and breakout role for young new star Julie Christie, whose free-spirited and vivacious Liz commands the screen and serves as the perfect would-be muse for Billy.

Themes at work

  • The seductive nature of fantasy and illusion. Arguably, Billy chooses not to depart for the promise and excitement of London with Liz because his prospects and fortunes there cannot possibly live up to his fantasies. This movie also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of daydreaming your way through life, which results in Billy’s grandmother turning ill, his romantic relationships falling apart, and him possibly being prosecuted by his former employer.
  • The inevitability of accountability. Billy time and again demonstrates that he is not reliable or responsible in his duties at home, at work, or in relationships. But perhaps it’s the advice his mother gives him at the end of the film that forces him to confront his responsibilities and ultimately choose to remain at home. She says: “We need you at home, lad… If you’re in any more trouble, Billy, it’s not something you can leave behind you, you know. You put it in your suitcase, and you take it with you.” Interestingly, the cartons of milk that Billy purchases represent the purity and nurturing power of mother’s milk, or his mother’s advice, which contributes to him missing the train.
  • The generation gap and the vast gulf between parents and their growing children.
  • New world versus old world. In tandem with the theme of generational divides, Billy Liar suggests the contrast between pre-swinging London New Britain and old Britain (as demonstrated by the demolition of several old edifices and buildings being replaced by modern towers and structures) and between older, antiquated, and racist values and newer more open-minded values.
    • Blogger Richard Keeble wrote: “Billy’s ambrosia is linked to the very real new world he has been exposed to through his education and the surrounding societal change… He has been seduced by the promises of the new world… Liz represents the new spirit of 1960s Britain at its most dazzling; she represents the elusive promises of the New World… She encourages his fantasies, even appealing in several of them as his wife or official aid. These are expressions of his rebellion against the world of his parents and grandparents… The film portrays the New World, for better or worse, as fundamentally disruptive. It will inevitably fall to Billy, therefore, to make a choice between its promises and his responsibilities at home.”

Similar works

  • British New Wave films and movies that imbue kitchen-sink realism and explore angry young men characters, including Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Bitter Harvest, and Alfie
  • The James Thurber short story The Secret the Life of Walter Mitty
  • Jo Jo Rabbit

Other films by John Schlesinger

  • A Kind of Loving
  • Far from the Madding Crowd
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • Sunday Bloody Sunday
  • The Day of the Locust
  • The Falcon and the Snowman

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