The Boy Friend
The British director Ken Russell once commented, "I never want to do a violent, disturbing film like The Devils (1971) again. That's why I did The Boy Friend (1971). It's pure escapism and fun."
Marked by Russell's imaginative approach to storytelling, The Boy Friend is a tribute to old Hollywood musicals that moves between reality and elaborate fantasies as the film unfolds. The action centers on a vulgar, amateurish production of a featherbrained musical - "The Boy Friend" - performed in the English backwater of Portsmouth by an incompetent cast of repertory players.
The catty and pretentious cast of actors vie for the attention of their very small audience, but egos really become unhinged when a noted film director shows up in the theater for a matinee performance.
In an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, the Portsmouth production's star, Rita (Russell regular Glenda Jackson) breaks her ankle and must be relieved by the timid, mousy understudy and Assistant Stage Manager Polly Browne (English proto-supermodel Twiggy).
While famed Hollywood director De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal) sits in a theater box watching the increasingly frantic, attention-grabbing theatrics of the cast, Polly struggles to remember her lines and get through the dance numbers without ruining the production. In the process, her unaffected, shy charm manages to upstage the flamboyant grandstanding and sexually provocative frenzy of the other actors and actresses who will stop at nothing to attract De Thrill's attention.
Russell's The Boy Friend inspires a number of comic moments from the low budget song-and-dance productions on the Portsmouth stage, where set decorations often fall apart in the midst of a musical number, and the delusional fantasies of the cast occasionally lapse into grand visions of what the production could have been. As pompous stage manager Max (Max Adrian) sighs, "if only we had money," Russell unfurls a number of expensive, lavish production numbers that express Max's unfulfilled theatrical desires. Later, the love-struck Polly, who harbors an all-consuming crush on her leading man Tony (Royal Ballet dancer Christopher Gable, who also choreographed), imagines the two in a Dionysian idyll with the rest of the cast in the middle of a leafy forest.
In the original 1954 Broadway incarnation of The Boy Friend (which starred Julie Andrews), writer Sandy Wilson satirized the conventions of 1920s stage musicals. Russell offers a more affectionate and personal homage in his version, however, to Hollywood musicals of the Thirties.
Indulging his own creative fantasies, Russell stages grand scale dance numbers filled with beautiful, perfectly choreographed dancers that mimic the spectacle and sensuality of Busby Berkeley musical routines in films like 42nd Street (1933). And while Russell takes an ironic, humorous approach to the stylized conventions of old Hollywood, he clearly embraces their lovable, endearing qualities.
A large part of The Boy Friend's appeal is undoubtedly due to then 21-year-old Twiggy, in her film debut. Twiggy brings just the right note of innocence and an ethereal, delicate romantic heroine quality straight out of old Hollywood to her part. The former model sensation of Swinging London, Twiggy displays an affecting sweetness, splendid dancing ability and a lovely voice, which defy every cliche of the talentless model-turned-actress. "Twiggy is a unique person," said Russell of his leading lady. "Of all the people I have ever worked with, she comes nearer to perfection than anyone else."
Despite its many charms, The Boy Friend is often seen as an inferior film to Russell's "serious" dramas like his adaptations of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) and The Rainbow (1989). But there is no denying Russell's wholly original and inventive self-reflexive approach to classic Hollywood musicals. Not content to merely honor those films, Russell also gives The Boy Friend a modern touch by introducing British class tension, hints of lesbianism, bawdy physical comedy and a telling comparison of film and stage craft. Russell shows where his prejudice lies, showing how in the moments of film fantasy that anything is possible, as opposed to the stage where rules of gravity and reality weigh more heavily.
Much of the criticism of The Boy Friend may also be due to a badly edited American release of the film, from which 14 minutes and key plot points were trimmed, which negatively influenced perceptions of this utterly magical film.
Director/Producer: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Ken Russell based on a play by Sandy Wilson
Cinematography: David Watkin
Production Design: Tony Walton
Music: Non-Original Music by Nacio Herb Brown and Sandy Wilson
Cast: Twiggy (Polly Browne), Christopher Gable (Tony Brockhurst), Moyra Fraser (Madame Dubonnet), Max Adrian (Max), Bryan Pringle (Percy), Catherine Willmer (Lady Brockhurst), Murray Melvin (Alphonse), Georgina Hale (Fay), Sally Bryant (Nancy), Vladek Sheybal (De Thrill), Tommy Tune (Tommy), Glenda Jackson (Rita), Antonia Ellis (Maisie).
C-138m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster