6 January 2019

Stan and Ollie (new Laurel and Hardy film biopic by Jeff Pope)

I have just returned from a screening of Stan and Ollie, the new biopic about Laurel and Hardy written by Jeff Pope, centering around their declining years. What follows, however, is not so much a full scale review as a simple reassurance to those who may, like me, have been apprehensive about the prospect of their heroes being subject to such a treatment.

Worry no longer, I say, because essentially - in, that is to say, its portrayal of the pair's relationship - the film feels convincing. There are some very touching moments where, with a minimum of dialogue, you get the sense of all that has existed between them, personally and professionally: one bedroom scene, in particular, is beautifully judged.

In such a genre it must be very tempting to reprise famous moments from the stars' movies - and yes, this is done here but never in a way which suggests mere filler or going for a cheap effect. In the bedroom scene mentioned above, Hardy is recuperating in his hotel room following what is assumed to be a mild heart attack; Laurel comes to see him after having avoided such a meeting for two days - they've had an argument - and at a certain point he joins his partner under the bedclothes.  It is, in part, a wink at the audience but, as will be remembered from countless documentaries and books about Eric and Ernie if you too hoover such things up, the significance of a bed for a double act is that it conveys their peculiarly intense intimacy. Eric Morecambe's reservations about playing scenes in bed with Ernie vanished once writer Eddie Braben told him: "If it's good enough for Laurel and Hardy ..." I am also reminded of a reminiscence by Humphrey Lyttelton about being in Louis Armstrong's dressing room on a tour, not saying much yet feeling so much, the men bonded by their dedication.

I have read many books about Laurel and Hardy, although not A.J. Marriot's , upon which the film is based, and none recently, so I'm not much inclined to dwell on ways in which the film may deviate from the facts as generally agreed. All I will say is that from my memory of such books there seems to have been a fair amount of tweaking of detail in the storyline but I can't help coming back to the point that I buy that central relationship, and even at the end when we are essentially in celebratory mode we still get a glimpse of the effort their act has cost.

There is a play, not very well known and not, so far as I am aware, published, about the Everly Brothers which I saw at the Lyric in Hammersmith in the nineties. The moment which stuck - it was set during the brothers' long dispute before they reunited at the Albert Hall - was when they admitted to each other that whatever they thought of the situation it was beyond doubt that their voices blended together became something far better than either could accomplish solo. There's an element of that here too.

What? Oh, go on then. A quick roundup of niggles. Different tours to the UK seem mixed up together. And were initial ticket sales quite as poor as suggested (and Delfont quite so devious)? Also, if my recollection of John McCabe's The Comedy World of Stan Laurel is correct, Laurel did not simply resurrect film "bits" for them to play on stage. And ... and ... But no. Stop that.

All you need to know is that the plot provides a bit of necessary tension so that we can see a subsequent reconciliation which affords the writer an opportunity for the two men to articulate what they mean to each other and what their act means - and the idea that they became closer on tour than during their years of filming is well documented so there is no radical distortion on view.

The two central performances, by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, are superb, and the heart of the film is in the interaction between them. I like the way that Pope's characters nod, in real life, to their onscreen personae - and do so knowingly, which makes perfect sense: it's not uncommon, after all, for work colleagues to talk about their work when they meet socially, because that may be the main thing they have in common. But because what these two blessed men have in common happens to be toil elevated to art the spectacle is at once ordinary and human and quite extraordinary.

Laurel and Hardy's arriving at Cobh in Ireland is used as the climax of the film. It is what always struck me most in John McCabe's book so that makes sense, regardless of strict chronology. As is well known, at least if you are interested in this sort of thing, the church bells rang out The Cuckoo Song as they docked, and Stan and Babe looked at each other and cried. We don't get that moment of crying onscreen, but that's because we quickly move to a a kind of montage of the pair doing the famous dance from Way Out West onstage in Ireland. Let's put aside thoughts about whether this is likely to have happened and concentrate instead on the way in which the dance is portrayed at this point, as opposed to the flashback at the beginning of the film, when they are seen cavorting for the camera in their younger days. At the end we experience it subjectively, through the audience's reaction, the camera never looking at the pair head on, and at that point it feels absolutely right that we are doing so: whatever the physical limitations of those aging performers the magic of seeing them, of film made flesh, seems to have been more than enough for British audiences. That is the memory that will linger and it seems a fitting note on which to end.

Stan and Ollie is well worth seeing, then, and a credit to all involved. If elements of the story have been heightened, tweaked, rearranged ("not necessarily in the right order" as Sid Green and Dick Hills might have put it) it has been at the service of a greater truth, or what one would like to think of as the truth. You could also see it in a similar light to Heathcote Williams' play Hancock's Last Half Hour: that is a meditation on the nature of comedy, using the framework of a well-known incident, and the protagonist both is and isn't Hancock, is and isn't the Galton and Simpson persona and the real life human being. When I saw the final moments of Stan and Ollie I felt that this was as much a commentary about Laurel and Hardy, and the nature of their wonderful, universally reviving art, as it was a conventional biopic. Which makes the sort of finicky considerations raised briefly earlier recede even further into the distance. The odd moment apart, this film is as good as one could have hoped.

 I would even go so far as to aver that Stan and Ollie passes the "Brahn eyes - I ask yer!" test. If you have read the posts below you will know that I, for one, was regularly distracted by the brown eyes of the actor playing the younger Laurel in the TV version of Neil Brand's radio play Stan. Well, I am happy to report that it is not a problem in this case. I don't think Steve Coogan is actually wearing contact lenses, simply that his eyes are a less dark brown - or possibly I've just succumbed to the quality of his portrayal of the great clown.

[Update: Since writing the above I have heard Coogan say in an interview that the problem of his having brown eyes had been fixed or dealt with - though whether that means a computer effect or donning contacts I don't know.]

Related posts:

Gail Louw's stage play about Stan Laurel 
Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts - radio play by Colin Hough about Laurel's stage debut 
Neil Brand's original radio play about Stan Laurel 
Other Laurel and Hardy-related works

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