Assessing a poor performance by an arch-rival actor, Sir (Albert Finney) declares, with relish, “I was pleasantly disappointed.”
That’s rather the way I feel about The Dresser, the film in which Sir (he has no other name) delivers that tart bit of dialogue. It’s not a great movie or anything. But it’s a pleasant enough diversion.
Sir is the aging lead actor and the manager of a troupe of classical actors touring Britain during the Second World War. He’s starting to fall apart, as the business of running the company and playing grueling Shakespeare every night is taking its toll.
But his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), is holding him together – for somewhat mysterious reasons. When Sir arrives at the theater for a performance of King Lear, and lapses into a catatonic state, Norman must summon all of his powers as cheerleader, taskmaster, and confessor, just to get the old boy on stage.
It’s the old servant/master flip-flop, a subject dear to the hearts of British playwrights (Ronald Harwood has adapted his own very popular play for the film). Director Peter Yates, whose diverse work has included such films as Bullitt and Breaking Away, treats the subject in a very entertaining manner. One of the ways he does this is by letting the actors go at full throttle for much of the running time.
And run they do. The two lead actors behave as though they were starving men sitting down to their first meal in weeks – and it’s Thanksgiving.
Albert Finney has always had a weakness for putty noses and funny wigs – think of his Scrooge or his slicked-down Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express or his bald Daddy Warbucks in Annie. As Sir, Finney gets to pile on the makeup and have a ball; both as the backstage tyrant and as Lear. He plays the wheezing, balding actor as the pathetically self-deluded blowhard he is, but Finney also suggests the few scraps of dignity that Sir retains.
Tom Courtenay, who recreates his stage role as the gay Norman, has to manipulate Sir with coaxing and subtlety. Unfortunately, there’s nothing too subtle about Courtenay’s performance. He’s all flattery and mincing, as though his stage acting had been kept intact; you can sense him playing to the second balcony. This is the kind of part an actor can play primarily with his dimple, and that’s what Courtenay does here.
Which is not to say that Courtenay and Finney aren’t fun to watch – they are. But their enjoyable scenery-chewing doesn’t constitute great movie acting. I preferred Edward Fox, in a small role as one of the company’s supporting players (most of whom are terror-stricken by Sir). Fox walks around looking as if he just swallowed a lemon whole; he has one eyebrow perpetually arched, as though he were watching the lead actors and thinking, “Good heavens! What is everyone getting so excited about?” It’s a funny turn; but he is almost lost among the sound and fury that Finney and Courtenay whip up. And since that’s what the movie is interested in, Finney and Courtenay hold center stage.
First published in the Herald, December 1983
I post this at Oscar time, and this film is a reminder of how the Oscars tend to seize on the nearest Oscar-ish movies that roll in at the end of the year. There’s not much special about The Dresser, but it got five nominations in the biggest categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, and two nods for Finney and Courtenay. I suspect the movie is as fun as I say it was, without being anything like the best of anything. You can see how the material would work a treat on stage, with actors thundering about. (I understand that the model for Sir was Donald Wolfit, the mighty stage trouper who sometimes beetle-browed his way through movies.) One thing I recall vividly: the way Finney gulped hungrily, desperately, at the glass of Guinness his dresser had waiting for him upon coming off stage.