It seems entirely fitting that Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Simon Gray’s play should be the curtain-raiser for the DVD release of The American Film Theatre Collection. Whether Alan Bates’s eponymous anti-hero would agree is debatable – whenever he hears the word ‘culture’, he tends to reach for a withering riposte – but as it stands, Butley, and the forthcoming thirteen other filmed masterpieces, stand at the very highest echelons of the filmed theatre pantheon.
Conceived in the early 70s, the AFT was an ambitious enterprise that sought to take the most groundbreaking plays of the 20th century – often in the original stage productions – and preserve them as films in their own right. It was the brainchild of American TV producer Ely Landau, and for two highly successful years, his venture blazed a trail that seemed to breathe new life into increasingly moribund theatre adaptations. Avoiding the inevitable pitfalls – legal, logistical and financial – Landau assembled the great marquee names of the age – Olivier, Gielgud, Jacobi, Schofield, up-and-coming actors like Ian Holm and Jeff Bridges, and RSC-trained directors like Peter Hall eager to face new challenges.
As technology and, more crucially, taste evolved throughout the 1970s (the AFT could offer little resistance to sharks, deep space and Mafia families), the experiment dwindled. What remains are hugely ambitious, though paradoxically static, productions of key theatrical works. O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Chekhov’s Three Sisters are the most well-known, but the litmus test was also to film works like Brecht’s Galileo and John Osborne’s Luther – smaller, more personal plays alongside the big-hitters. The result is a little like ‘theatrical Viagra’, though by no means as sensationalist as seeing Nicole Kidman gyrate at the Donmar. It is rare to see such luminaries on ‘stage’ together, and far from novelty casting or box-office manipulation, the use of such actors as Lee Marvin and Katherine Hepburn provides a fascinating exploration of their film and theatre selves combining.
Butley hits the ground running and bodes well for the rest of the collection. Alan Bates is Ben Butley, an embittered alcoholic English Literature lecturer whose life has clearly been on a downward spiral far before our first sight of him, coughing and spluttering into a warped mirror in the opening scene. The film is a day in his life, that useful old theatrical chestnut that permits actor, writer and director to wring every available drop of bathos and pathos. Arriving at his cramped office, it is clear his life is off-kilter, his relationships poisoned by his sardonic self-destruction. He shares the office with Joey Keyston (O’Callaghan), a homosexual former student and protégé who shares a room in Butley’s flat. In the space of a few minutes, we learn all we need to about him: a failed marriage, a baby girl whose name he forgets, students he despises, superiors he antagonises. Everything about Butley screams self-imposed emotional immaturity; an inability to build meaningful relationships while those around him move on (it later transpires that he wife is to marry a man Butley once proudly declared was the ‘most boring man in London’), an aversion to professional success (his critical study of T.S. Eliot is incomplete after twenty years), and above all an incapacity to move away from witty barbs and articulate hypocrisy as a sole means of expression. Yes, we laugh at his quick mind and razor-sharp jibes, but we likewise despair at his supposed shield of invulnerability.
The film is indebted to Pinter’s deft direction. His innate sense of the material and sensitivity to the narrative’s rhythms and cadences are well served by a claustrophobic mise en scene. It is testament to all concerned that the only jarring sequences are actually those that move out of the office and into less charged spaces. The camera aids this self-effacement – there are few zooms or extraneous close-ups, just a frequently immobile frame that captures Bates’s tics, mannerisms and stares in all their intensity.
Indeed, Bates’s tour de force performance is the film’s raison d’être. He attacks the role that had already garnered him a Tony Award on Broadway, investing it with a coruscating rawness that reveals a man of the verge of implosion. Made pathetic by the small scrap of bloodied tissue attached to a shaving cut, he is a figure tragically out of place in the environs of a moneyed and middle-class institution.
The package also comes with some useful extras. There’s a half-hour interview with the late Bates, in which he explains his preparation for the role, as well as insight on his other entry in the AFT collection, In Celebration (1974) with Lindsay Anderson. Other interviews include writer Simon Gray and AFT guru Landau, and for completists there are trailers, still galleries and a review article by critic Michael Feingold.
So, a real triumph of acting, of directing, of theatre. Unafraid of breaking out of the four-walled and talking heads structure, Butley stands a perfect fusion of cinema and theatre. Yes, it is stagey, but never staged; its stasis the very ingredients for this painstaking study of a man under the influence. The film should ultimately be treated as a kind of time-capsule – left buried, this is the kind of artefact that, if discovered and deciphered in years to come, will stand as a powerful reminder of stage play’s ability to provoke and cinema’s capacity to showcase magnificent acting performances.