by Jay Seaver
As long as there's been stories, there's been stories about storytellers. It's a natural thing, and when done well, a joy to watch; after all, these people know of what they speak. Unfortunately, "The Boy Friend" is not quite one of those joys; while it features several small pleasures, it has trouble focusing on the right things. It's fun to watch, but by the end, I was pretty glad it was over.Apparently, this wasn't originally a backstage comedy; the original Sandy Wilson stage musical is actually being performed by the characters in Ken Russell's film. In the film, the theater where <I>The Boy Friend</I> is running is struggling - the audiences are tiny, easily outnumbered by the performers; the whole thing seems like it could go bust, with the cast going through the motions because it beats being out on the street. But today, two things are going to be different: Mr. Cecil De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal), a big-name Hollywood producer, is in the audience, looking for talent and his next feature; backstage, word has come that their star has broken her foot and assistant stage manager Polly Browne (Twiggy) will have to step in. This sets her all atwitter, not just because she hasn't really understudied quite so well as she perhaps should have, but because she has such a crush on her leading man, Tony Brockhurst (Christopher Gale).
"The actual play? Probably like ninety minutes."
The show on stage is an airy thing originally written as a pastiche of British theater in the 1920s, and we see enough to get the plot - Polly's character has made up a boyfriend and must secure a real one for the big dance, but she and the guy she meets both wind up pretending to be poor - and for the musical and dance numbers to fit in. It's a cute, but dated, play, and by the time The Boy Friend was released in 1971, I'm not sure how much interest the audience would have had in it. Besides, many of the most amusing moments come from the addition of the backstage elements - the numerous props with lines printed on them that Polly has to rely on (which jealous co-stars attempt to deprive her of), for instance. The entire cast aside from Polly is playing directly to de Thrill, which is at times cringe-inducing and at other times thrilling - American Tommy (Tommy Tune) and scheming Maisie (Antonia Ellis) engage in spirited one-upsmanship trying to grab his attention.
Of a great many supporting characters, those two are the most fun, even if Tommy is a little flat backstage - he tells the same stories twice, in a way that made me think they were lines he used on the ladies rather than, apparently, being sincere. His tall, gangly body makes his dancing great fun to watch, though, as he always appears slightly more likely to fly out of control than to the rest of the cast. The most deliciously enjoyable supporting character is an uncredited Glenda Jackson, whose Rita suffers the foot injury that thrusts Polly on stage. She considers herself a terribly big fish in a small pond, and it's a stitch to watch her switch between what seems like genuine affection for Polly with rising jealousy for the opportunity the younger actress is getting and not wanting to be shown up.
Twiggy turns out to be a really pleasant surprise here. It may simply be a case of fortuitous casting - the part requires someone who looks waifish and small enough to be intimidated by nearly anything, and the skinny physique that earned her that name is just a hair's breadth short of unhealthy (and toward the beginning, one does want to retroactively buy her a sandwich; I imagine they're using make-up to heighten her pallor and make her look less substantial). As the film goes on, though, after some encouraging words from Rita and a bit of trial-by-fire, she does become a more forceful presence on stage. She tricks the audience into not taking this tiny model seriously, and even if she doesn't quite become Julie Andrews, she turns in a pretty decent performance, handling the comedy well and not embarrassing herself in the dance scenes, at least to my inexpert eye. It's a shame there's not more chemistry between her and Christopher Gable, the ballet dancer cast as her leading man.
And there's the big problem - Gable's Tony is an almost complete non-entity, even in the extended version of the film that played at the Brattle Theater as part of their Ken Russell series (well, "extended" in that it was longer than the version that played the U.S. in 1971 by almost a half hour). I spent most of the movie figuring that it was headed toward Polly recognizing that Tommy was the more interesting guy, because Tony really doesn't do much of anything. If I'd thought to take notes, I could probably tell you what was cut just from the way the print quality changed (apparently the American cut was in better shape). At a total of two hours and thirty-seven minutes, this cut goes on for a long time for what is essentially a two-joke comedy. The run-down theater is a well-constructed location, but over the course of the film, it becomes somewhat oppressive. Russell tries to open it up a little by having the cast and producer fantasize about the play being adapted into a movie, but some of those are just bizarre (well, it is a Ken Russell movie, even if it is a G-rated one).The musical was becoming an endangered species by 1971, and you can kind of see why here. It's fine, pleasant enough to watch, but by this point, there weren't musical stars, and the wispy plot wasn't really considered to be enough for a movie by then, hence the going meta. Good enough for a watch, and maybe the shorter version is easier to get through.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14704&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/23/06 12:25:04