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Feb. 23-March 1 at the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater
If 1963 seems like a long time ago, then think back only as far as 1984. That’s when the Smiths released “William, It Was Really Nothing,” the first of several songs inspired by the then-two-decades-old Billy Liar. John Schlesinger’s second feature, the tale of an overimaginative young man who can’t summon the courage to flee his northern town for London, was one of Morrissey’s essential texts—and a crucial building block of British youth culture. Tom Courtenay’s virtuoso performance as the exuberantly nonconformist but ultimately cowardly Billy was sampled by Saint Etienne and presaged The Basketball Diaries: Courtenay’s Billy blew away his tormentors with an imaginary machine gun years before Leonardo DiCaprio did. Indeed, the idea of an alienated youth who can’t separate his heroic fantasies from his unheroic life now seems a little too familiar. But there’s much that’s surprising in the restored Billy Liar, which hasn’t been seen in its original CinemaScope version for decades. The film is a crucial transition piece between the Angry Young Man dramas of the early ’60s and the freewheeling-hipster movies that soon followed. (It’ll be A Hard Day’s Night any day now.) As the sensitive, uninhibited woman who may be too footloose for Billy, Julie Christie embodies the new era, but the title character still has one foot in the past; he both mocks and fantasizes about the Britain that won World War II, but his imagined escape route from his disapproving family and his job as an undertaker’s clerk is nothing more radical than to become a gag writer for a popular comedian. Interestingly, the movie is also a lament for the sort of provincial northern city that oppressed a thousand Billys: As the protagonist wanders through town, attempting to elude his boss and his two fiancées, the camera examines both semidemolished old buildings and the soulless new structures that are taking their place. —Mark Jenkins