Friday, 11 January 2019

Stan and Ollie, Ida and Lucille

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have an iconic place in the affections of many of us who spent our British, (sunshine free) school summer holidays, watching their films. As children discovering their brilliance decades after they had died and far more used to colour TV than black and white films with crackling sound tracks, we still laughed as our grandparents had done and found a comfort in their gentle, devastating physical comedy. 

Their magnificence and the alchemy of their comedic partnership has been brought back to celluloid life in the biopic “Stan and Ollie” with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly taking on the titular roles.

The biopic centres on a six week tour of the UK and Ireland which the duo embarked upon and the mesmerising recreation of the men and their mythical film personas, offers too a moving account of their friendship, work dynamic and the quiet brilliance of their talent. 

The make up especially in respect of the prosthetics of John C Reilly’s Oliver Hardy, is flawless and the body language, dancing, vocal patterns and even hairlines are immaculately rendered. The team involved in this from actor to costume is working so brilliantly it’s completely invisible. We are watching Stan and Ollie, not Coogan and Reilly.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Jeff Pope the film brings into the mix the wives of both men and for me this is where the film finds an additional element which though at times comedic and nurturing, is also combative and competitive.  

However this is where I noticed the join.

Hardy’s wife Lucille, is played brilliantly by Shirley Henderson,  an actress of 53, but whose character's age at that time was actually 38. Oliver Hardy was 43 and Lucille 26 when they met on set in 1936,  another aspect noted in the biopic.

Ida Kitaeva, Laurel’s wife played to superb comic effect by 34 year old Nina Arijanda,  was actually 48 years old. Ida as portrayed here looks young and is young. What a coup it would have been to have cast two actresses age appropriately.

Now perhaps if you’re not campaigning for full representation of actresses over the age of 40 on screen, this won’t matter, but I think it’s problematic in terms of the film as a whole, because the level of detail everywhere else is forensic. 

Dramatic licence has compressed and expanded certain facts elsewhere in the film, it’s true but my disquiet is relevant because it was a creative choice to include these women and so there was a requirement to do so accurately. Also the women are in competition most of the time, with one touching moment of solidarity only. Both nagging their husbands, both hectoring each other at times. It was a good decision to include women in the film but it would have been enjoyable once this decision had been taken to portray them as fully realised people.

In interviews it’s been explained that the script as written, barely mentioned the two women and so work was done to increase both their screen time and relevance. So it seems odd that where careful attention was paid to the accuracy of time and location, the women of the plot integral to the lives of the main characters, are treated with a sort of copy and paste Hollywood portrayal.

The previous wives of both men get a mention at the start as they complain about the alimony they’re expected to pay and the children they’re supposed to maintain and this I think is also an interesting creative choice as it belies a callousness and disposability of family, which was often the situation Laurel and Hardy found themselves in their films.  

As Laurel wrote their film scripts was he either resolving his own relationships or holding a mirror to them. He was married 3 times and lived unmarried with a fourth partner when younger.

The duo in Laurel’s scripts were characters either frustrated in love or living in abject fear of their onscreen hectoring spouses, duplicitous man children in fear of being punished by exasperated wives. 

Of their time, reflective of the sexual politics and well within the constraints of the Hays code of “decency”. It didn’t matter because the men were always our focus. We loved them, whether they laughed, cried, ran, danced, sang, spoke, poked one another in the eye or fell flat on their faces. We loved them when they ran from women or fooled them and won. Because they did so as the underdog, not the smug privileged oppressor.

But in this biopic I think the creative choices in respect of women speak more to a Hollywood of now. One that still prizes youth and beauty in women above all and where despite both Olivia Colman and Glenn Close winning well deserved Golden Globes for their performances (as women and actresses in middle age), little attention to detail is ever given to the women featuring in films about men.

Sad too was the number of actors who passed on the male lead in the Golden Globe winning film "The Wife" before Jonathan Pryce was cast and played the role brilliantly. Apparently for the actors previously approached, the title of the film put them off. Not because it was a bad, but because it only mentioned a woman.

Ida Kitaeva gave Stan Laurel the happy marriage he wanted, yet years have been taken off her age in the film. It’s slightly jarring and it distracted me.

Despite the brilliance of Nina Arijanda’s portrayal, I do wonder if this has been done so that Steve Coogan (aged 53 playing Stan Laurel aged 57) is appearing with an actress who befits the model of Hollywood marriage, as male film makers prefer to see them.
The male film and TV gaze is an unforgiving one on middle aged women and it's rare to see a film in which he middle aged lead actor is paired with a female lead his own age. Perhaps Hollywood prefers to see it's own relationship power dynamic portrayed onscreen.

It's both a casting exercise which fits the model of marriage, which existed when Laurel and Hardy were in their heyday of the 1930’s and a model which still exists in show business relationships today.

Worryingly too despite the emphasis on how ageing affected Laurel and Hardy’s careers in 1947 as portrayed in the film, actresses in the 1940’s and actresses today, still see unemployment past the age of 40, as a reality with few exceptions.  

The 1947 UK theatre tour was in fact hugely successful, with audiences flocking to see the pair. Their age, notwithstanding or indeed dimming the affection in which they were held.

The truth is Hollywood simply isn’t as unkind to ageing men as it is to ageing women. In fact men in middle age still have careers well into their 70's before their age becomes a career-limiting factor.

This bizarre spousal age twist aside, the film faithfully brings the audience a truthful rendition of a beloved comedy duo who sustained the world through the worst of the depression and in the post war uncertainty, with their theatre tour.

At this time of global uncertainty and with national division getting more febrile by the day, here and in the US; this biopic brings the healing qualities of “Stan and Ollie” back to us just when we need them the most.