Saturday, December 9, 2017
Harold Pinter | Butley
the day everything falls apart
by Douglas Messerli
Simon Gray (writer, based on his play), Harold Pinter (director) Butley / 1974
The 1974 film Butley, was directed by the great playwright Harold Pinter, based on Simon Gray’s play from 1971; distributed under producer Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre series, it was released in the US in 1974 and in the United Kingdom in 1976.
This work is certainly not very cinematic; except for a scene in Butley’s house, a trip through the underground, and couple of passing automobiles outside of the college where Ben Butley teaches, the action is restricted to his unkempt college office, which he shares with his current lover, Joey Keyston (Richard O’Callagham), a former student who is now part of the faculty, and hoping for a promotion. Joey is apparently teaching Blake, while his mentor is an Eliot scholar as a peeling photograph in the corner of the room hints.
But despite the highly theatrically-based film, it is a wonder to watch simply because of Alan Bates’ remarkable performance as he paces the room, snarling, dismissing, pouncing on his various prey—his lover, several of his students, fellow faculty members, and Joey’s friend, a publisher, Reg Nuttall (Michael Byrne), with whom Joey has just spent a long weekend and, as Butley gradually discovers, is about to leave Ben for a new relationship.
In many respects, Butley necessarily reminds one of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a work wherein Butley alone combines the “get the guest” behavior of both Martha and George. The claustrophobic college setting, the witty and devastatingly destructive dialogue, and even Bates’ obvious joy—expressed in a wide variety of subtle and not so subtle smiles and smirks—in insinuating and terrifying his visitors and the trapped Joey (who is foiled in his plan to escape to the library, which has temporarily closed for repairs). Like that unhappy couple, Butley is clearly a heavy drinker who is attempting to recover from a dreadful hangover. Finally, however, he is far more self-destructive than even Martha and George, spewing out hate that turns on him to reveal a deep self-hatred such that, by work’s end, represents a kind of self-immolation, particularly when the wife from who he is separated, Anne (Susan Engel), shows up to announce that she intends to marry Butley’s arch-enemy whom he describes as the most boring man in England.
He simply intimidates his students by refusing to see them for tutorials, that is all but two, a feisty new student, Miss Heasman (Georgina Hale)—who insists on meeting with him despite his several attempts to send her away—and a young man, Mr. Gardner (Simon Rouse), in whom he has taken a special interest, encouraging him to drop his course with his colleague Edna Shaft (the wonderful Jessica Tandy), who shows up at regular intervals to complain about Butley’s behavior.
Most of the brow-beating is saved for Joey, a man he knows well enough that he can play against deep weaknesses and what he describes as a “vile toadying” behavior. At moments Joey bravely fights back; having already heard of Anne’s divorce intentions, he attempts to save his news about Reg for another day. But it appears that the only one whom Butley canhot intimidate is Reg, the “other” man in Joey’s life who Butley calls Ted who is led to believe is the son of a Leeds butcher—in fact, it turns out, Reg’s father was a math professor.
As I mentioned, by film’s end the lacerating attacks have left him, perhaps intentionally, utterly alone, along with heavy bruises and a hacking cough that sounds like tuberculosis, his long, jet black hair, hanging from his head as if it were a crown of thorns. If in all his machinations he has attempted to flay those who might help him, he has been severely psychologically whipped, without a soul to turn to, and without even a cross on which to hang himself.
If Gray’s script is never truly transcendent in its insights, Bates’ quite brilliant portrayal of its hero, along with Pinter’s insightful directing, lift this angry young drama into a toweringly dramatic work that stands out from others of its day.
Los Angeles, December 9, 2017