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Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger(1959)

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teaser Look Back in Anger (1959)

People today think of the 1950s as a time of conformity, consumerism, and cold-war paranoia, but there were plenty of people who rejected that cookie-cutter mindset. Not long after Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg launched the Beat Generation in the United States, the young English playwright John Osborne penned a work called Look Back in Anger, which had its London premiere in 1956. Osborne's gritty drama was a textbook example of the "kitchen-sink realism" that pumped new counter-cultural energy into British art over the next few years this was the first time an ironing board played a key supporting role in a hit play and Osborne's reputation as an "angry young man" made those words the internationally known label for a whole generation of mad English males.

This movement gained added momentum when the play came to Broadway in 1957 and reached the screen in 1958, starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure as a feuding couple (well before Burton's triumph in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966) along with Gary Raymond as their flatmate (played by Alan Bates onstage) and Claire Bloom as another woman in their lives. The movie was the first feature by Tony Richardson, who also directed the stage production and went on to make such powerful working-class dramas as A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) as well as the 1963 hit Tom Jones, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Director.

The main character of Look Back in Anger is Jimmy Porter, a part-time jazz trumpeter who supports himself and his wife, Alison, by running a candy stand in a marketplace near the run-down flat they share with Cliff, a friend. Although he's more educated than his blue-collar mates, Jimmy stays loyal to the working-class roots he shares with Cliff, venting his rage at society's upper strata through abusive rants about Alison's well-off family and verbal attacks on Alison herself. Alison is pregnant, but awareness of her marriage's fragility leads her to hide this from Jimmy and ask her doctor for an abortion, which he refuses even to discuss.

Jimmy has his good points, including real affection for Alison when they manage to get on the same emotional wavelength, sometimes helped by a childish game where they pretend to be a bear and a squirrel. He's also fiercely devoted to Mrs. Tanner, the old cockney woman who provided the candy stall he operates. But his hostility can be explosive toward people he doesn't like, such as Alison's friend Helena, an actress who needs a place to stay while she prepares for a new play. Alison invites her to move in, making Jimmy so furious that he and Cliff barge into the theater where she's rehearsing and embarrass her in front of everyone. Things get worse when Alison goes to church with Helena instead of visiting Mrs. Tanner in the hospital, where she's lying gravely ill. Alarmed at the extent of Jimmy's all-encompassing anger, Helena calls Alison's father to come and rescue his daughter, and he soon arrives, taking Alison back to the family home. Returning from the hospital, Jimmy berates Helena so viciously that she slaps him and then passionately kisses him, starting a love affair that reinvents the household with Helena in Alison's place. Feelings continue to run high as Cliff moves out, Alison returns after undergoing a new tragedy, and Helena grows increasingly ambivalent about her effect on the couple's lives. Subplots center on Alison's relationship with her befuddled father, a retired military man, and Jimmy's attempt to help an East Indian market vendor stave off the racism of a mean-spirited cop.

It's said that Osborne based Look Back in Anger on his own unhappy marriage to a woman with little faith in his playwriting ambitions; if so, the play solved more than one problem for him, since he fell in love with Ure, who played Alison onstage and in the movie, and they married in 1957. Jimmy was played by Kenneth Haigh in the London and Broadway productions, but Richardson needed a star in order to finance the movie, which the British film industry regarded as too pungent for average tastes. Burton said yes as soon as the part was offered, motivated by his respect for Osborne, and by the role's antiestablishment views, and (paradoxically) by the prospect of working with a director who had a high-toned Oxford education. Burton's financial handlers were extremely upset, since appearing in Richardson's movie meant walking away from a highly profitable three-picture deal with Warner Bros., according to a Burton biography. This couldn't have bothered Warner Bros. much, since the studio gave funding to Richardson and handled the picture's US distribution, and it certainly didn't ruffle Burton, who was very pleased with his work, writing to his brother, "I am for the first time ever looking forward to seeing a film in which I play." Not everyone shared his enthusiasm producer Harry Saltzman decided Burton had been "monumentally miscast" when the movie slumped at the box office but the performance did much to revive his reputation, which was somewhat shaky at the time.

Look Back in Anger also did a lot for Richardson, who set up his long-lasting Woodfall company (named after the street where Osborne and Ure lived) to produce the picture, which was fairly expensive for an art-house film. He prevailed on Osborne and screenwriter Nigel Kneale to open up the play a bit, adding some dialogue and characters (including Mrs. Tanner, played by Edith Evans, a legendary English actress) and setting several scenes in outside locations the marketplace, a railway station, Helena's theater, Alison's family home, and more so the movie wouldn't be claustrophobically confined to the Porter apartment. This notwithstanding, Richardson wrote in his autobiography that "the core of it remained as it should have done a filmed play."

In addition to making Osborne the most influential British playwright of his time, Look Back in Anger "defined a generation, provided a watershed in Britain's view of itself and brought [Osborne] into the public prints as a controversial, dangerous figure," as Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg wrote. The movie has sparked mixed reactions from the start; for instance, Burton wrote to his brother that "there isn't a shred of self-pity in my performance," while New York Times critic Bosley Crowther described Jimmy as "a conventional weakling, a routine crybaby." Apart from a few sentimental moments (the bear-and-squirrel game is a bit much) I don't think his performance hits one false note, and the other principal players are consistently fine. Ditto for Richardson's resolutely earthbound visual style. A milestone in both the Angry Young Man crusade and England's budding Free Cinema movement, Look Back in Anger is still riveting to watch.

Producer: Harry Saltzman
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, with additional dialogue by John Osborne; based on Osborne's play
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: Richard Best
Art Direction: Peter Glazier
Cast: Richard Burton (Jimmy Porter), Claire Bloom (Helena Charles), Mary Ure (Alison Porter), Edith Evans (Mrs. Tanner), Gary Raymond (Cliff Lewis), Glen Byam Shaw (Colonel Redfern), Phyllis Neilson-Terry (Mrs. Redfern), Donald Pleasence (Hurst), Jane Eccles (Miss Drury), S.P. Kapoor (Kapoor), George Devine (Doctor), Walter Hudd (Actor), Anne Dickins (Girl A.S.M.), John Dearth (Pet Stall Man), Nigel Davenport (1st Commercial Traveller), Alfred Lynch (2nd Commercial Traveller), Toke Townley (Spectacled Man), Bernice Swanson (Sally).
BW-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by David Sterritt

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