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Spotlight December 1997


North American DVD/VHS release 1 April 03
- Theatrical Trailer - "Simon Gray and BUTLEY," essay by Michael Feingold, Village Voice - AFT Cinebill for BUTLEY - Stills Gallery - Interview with Edie Landau, American Film Theatre - "Ely Landau: In Front of the Camera" AFT Promotional Reel - 1974 - Trailer Gallery, with complete list of the AFT Films - AFT Scrapbook

TWENTY-SIX years ago, Alan Bates, already a stage and film star, created one of his most memorable roles: a signature role, in fact. No one else can hope to play the irascible, impossible Ben Butley with his delicacy and wit. Ben Butley is a manipulator, a brilliant, self-hating loser, a chain-smoking, destructive slob whose briefcase contains empty liquor bottles and mismatched socks ... and yet, one finds an exasperated affection for him; perhaps there's a touch of Butley lurking in all of us.

One of Simon Gray's greatest tragicomic anti-heroes, this lecturer in English suffers, in the course of one afternoon, the loss of his wife, Anne [Susan Engel], who leaves him to marry one of his friends, taking with her their infant daughter, Marina; his sometime pupil, roommate and lover, Joey [Richard O'Callaghan], who, desperate to get away, moves in with successful publisher Reg [Michael Byrne]. Everyone thrives but Butley: fellow academic Edna Shaft [Jessica Tandy], who has been dawdling over her Byron book for 20 years, finishes it and finds a publisher. Anne's new lover, Tom, an old friend who Butley calls "the most boring man in London," completes his novel about military service and sells it to Reg. Butley is left utterly alone; we are left trying to imagine what his next move might be.
While Butley is a virtuoso turn for Bates, the supporting actors create a powerful ensemble. In addition to those named above, Georgina Hale plays a prissy student, Miss Heasman, who temporarily bests Butley at his own game, by managing to schedule a tutorial (Butley is a past master at avoiding student contact). But tutorial becomes torture as Butley eviscerates Heasman's paper on The Winter's Tale. Simon Rouse is Mr Gardner, a "plumed youth" who is under scrutiny as Butley's next protege, to replace the departing Joey.

An "Acid-Coated Sugarplum"

In a 1972 SHOW interview, Peter Buckley says, "In the title role of the loud-mouthed, aggressive loser who refuses to give up, [Bates] is on the attack mentally, verbally and physically for over two hours. It is a demanding part, one of those acid-coated sugarplums that only come along every so often, and Bates gives it all it's worth, and then some, in a brilliant performance that is totally exhausting for the audience and for the actor."
Alan Bates says: "I find it much more tiring than even playing Hamlet. I don't even get a breather. In old Hamlet now, there's plenty of time all the way throughout to have a good rest. You can even go off to sleep if you want -- not just the audience, but Hamlet -- and even when he's onstage, and he is a lot, much of that time he really isn't doing all that much; just lolling about. But not Butley. No, he never gets a loll. He's up there and at it for the whole time. I shed pounds every night from the sheer hard slog of it all, but it really gets me up there flying high, so high that it takes another three hours after every performance just to get back to earth." It must have been an especially challenging and exciting time since Bates was also a new father of twin sons, born in 1971 (the play opened 7/14/71 at the Criterion Theatre, West End).

When Butley came to Broadway in 1972, New York Times critic Clive Barnes called Bates' performance perhaps the single greatest he had ever seen on stage. Later in 1972 producer Ely Landau, who had created a premium film series called "American Film Theatre," commissioned Simon Gray to create a screenplay from the stage play, and Butley was captured on film. This was the dawn of the videotape era, and the AFT films had a limited video release. These tapes are now highly-prized collectors' items; a few exist in academic libraries, inaccessible except to academics. There are occasional tv screenings, most recently in Canada, on Bravo (an email to the US Bravo programmer reveals that they don't own US broadcast rights to the films). These are notable films in their own right, as well as fascinating records of great theatrical performances.

A Note on the Versions

Butley was funnier onstage than it is on film because of the live electricity generated by Bates' sparring with his adversaries (i.e., everyone in his life). The audiotape (taken from the film) captures some of this energy. For that matter, so does the film, which is brilliant. (While Simon Gray, who wrote his own screenplay, and director Harold Pinter, opened up the play by adding a few external scenes, the action takes place on one day, in one college office."We are preserving the unities," Butley might say.) The difference is our nearness to Butley himself: in a performance in which several emotions often vie, in which life is a series of stratagems and assaults, we see the wheels turning, the games being set up. We see too, if fleetingly, crushing sadness and despair, a cornered man, out of moves. When you eventually see the film, watch Alan Bates closely in the final scene, as Gardner begins to read the Eliot poem (probably the same words that Joey read in a similar moment long ago). Ben's eyes meet Joey's with a look that combines humor, pain, love, valediction.

A One-off Character

For anyone who has been lucky enough to encounter the real Alan Bates -- easygoing, funny, polite and kind -- the edgy monster he and Simon Gray created in Ben Butley is particularly surreal. It's a good thing that he has never settled into stereotypical roles: Butley remains a one-off character.
In a 1989 interview Bates says: "I did quite like changing whatever image I had. A lot of film actors do want to hold one image, and that is how they become perhaps more hugely famous than I. They have this permanent identifiable state. I don't want to be known for Butley or Guy Burgess. I like them all to have had their full life. You keep trying to push your range, and sometimes you fall down because you're not quite right, physically or temperamentally. I like to go as wide as it will go." |||


The films closely bracketing Butley -- A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, directed by Peter Medak, and Impossible objet (Story of a Love Story), directed by John Frankenheimer -- though "golden age" Bates performances, are little-known films. In these and others, he does "go as wide as it will go;" his choice of projects is as brilliant as his luck in distribution is bad. (The American studio was afraid of the controversial nature of Joe Egg, and Impossible objet never had a commercial release due to finances.)