Go back a couple of generations, to an era that has become legend to the technological age, and you will find the actor Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher sitting at table with Mum and Dad, plus Grandma, enduring with good humor his family’s brooding disapproval. It is 1963, and at this typical Yorkshire, England kitchen table with frilly curtains, porcelain tea-pots, sugar bowls and all, sits a not so typical young man.
He tells lies with uncommon repose and has these indulgent fantasies of heroic grandeur; still, he seems most likely of all the young men in this small, Yorkshire town of Bradford, to one day escape its fishbowl mentality. Billy has the instinctive ability to shrug off the glowering looks aimed at him from the older generation, as well as from the many fiances he has acquired, with extraordinarily self-mollifying humor – at its best when his speech verges on a rather elegant brogue
The movie, Billy Liar, is early-John Schlesinger, with foretellings of the genius that became the Academy Award winning fame of Darling, (1965), and Midnight Cowboy, (1969). While Billy Fisher throws actual calendar pages at the wind, to Joe Buck’s symbolic ones, each of these 20th century heroes wants to escape the confines of his prosaic home-town for a more exciting and self-fulfilling life in the big city.
A lighter movie than Midnight Cowboy, Billy Fisher, like Joe Buck, struggles within two realms: that of life’s reality and the illusory world of dreams and fantasies. Billy Fisher wants to become a scriptwriter for a questionably famous comedian in London, and, not surprisingly, the would-be writer is funnier than the comic. Some of Billy’s most humorous material is practiced on his boss, Mr. Shadrack, who runs an undertaker firm. A hawkish, stolid man, played by the venerable Leonard Rossiter, he finds no humor in Billy whatsoever.
Julie Christie, however, plays Liz, the beautiful, mercurial girl who drifts back and forth between London and Bradford – she won’t be tied down. Yet, she has an inkling for Billy; indeed, it becomes obvious they are kindred souls.
Why does Billy lie? Julie Christie is asked in the film commentary, and she sums it up well by pointing out that Billy was intensely creative, but “not a second of time was given” to him by anyone in his family, nor by his boss, who, like everyone else, mockingly waves-off Billy’s ambitions to be a scriptwriter. Moreover, Billy’s father is a real brute; and his mother, though she loves her son, takes no interest in what Billy is really all about. “So it is no wonder he lies about himself all the time,” Christie says.
Billy lives in a fantasy-world, to which only the audience is privy. He has all sorts fantastic, inner-imaginings – of soldiering, marching and shooting, which is such the vernacular, survivalist culture of England. He is always the wounded but celebrated hero of the war – marching through the dilapidated streets on the winning side; though, it is a little unclear whether he fancies himself on the English side, the German side or what-have-you. And Billy’s underlying anger manifests itself in these flash-fantasies of shooting people or blowing them up, namely his father, his boss, or his fiance – the bitchy one, whenever they go against him.
Tom Courtenay had been playing the understudy for Albert Finney in the stage version of this story, which was based on a novel by Keith Waterhouse. John Schlesinger chose Courtenay, as well as Billy’s mother and father and grandmother from the stage cast. Leonard Rossiter, Mr. Shadrack, was a well-established T.V. actor, but a number of the other characters were inexperienced, which was the way Schlesinger wanted it. He liked the germane, northern England quality they brought to the film.
As for Julie Christie: she was discovered by the Italian producer, Joseph Janni, acting in a dramatic production, at a time when she was studying language and drama in London. This was Christie’s first part in a film, and she has mentioned, somewhat wistful, that it was the best role she has ever played. This, even though her very next part, also with Schlesinger, in Darling, earned her an Academy Award for best actress!
Schlesinger’s great genius as a filmmaker becomes corporeal with Christie’s role as Liz, the girl who is spiritually characteristic of Billy – without the lies. She breezes into Bradford on the black and white, chiaroscuro light of Schlesinger’s film-art. The towering, ancient buildings of northern England that he renders as flying above like beautiful, gothic birds alongside the new buildings going up during England’s post-WWII industrial urbanization, define Schlesinger’s initial documentary style. Christie dances through the streets like a Londoner, to this snappy, piping flute-music accompanied by somber, jazzy, bass undertones which signifies the era at the inception of its time.