Sunday, December 25, 2011

Look Back in Anger

Jimmy Porter, from 'Look Back in Anger', epitomizes the 'angry young man' of the early sixties. He sweats away at a job that helps to make ends meet. He is an anachronistic relic, languishing in a time that barely makes sense to him. He is angry, very angry and uncouth. His bitterness leaps from the pages of John Osborne's landmark play, and makes the present day idea of a 'quarter life crisis' seem like a trivial example of a 'first world problem'. In his dissent he takes no prisoners. He holds his wife,Alison, to ransom for all his grouses and bullies his good humored flatmate and business partner, Cliff.

The play was a part of the 'kitchen sink' movement of the 1960s, characterized by gritty, dark and unromantic depictions of daily life,particularly that of the working class, in English film, theatre and art. It caused quite a stir and the audience is said to have 'gasped' when they saw an ironing board on stage. A cinematic adaptation of it was released in 1959, starring Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter and Mary Ure (from the original stage production) as Alison.

I read the play before I watched the film. If I have one regret, it is that I never got to watch Peter O'toole on stage. Somehow, my perception of Jimmy Porter wasn't very different from O'toole's interpretation of Henry II in 'Beckett' (yes, I'm going through an 'O'toole appreciation phase' now). It is said that John Osborne himself considered O'toole's performance as Jimmy Porter, at the Old Vic, to be the best interpretation he ever saw. I was nevertheless thrilled to know that Burton had played Porter in the film adaptation and looked forward, with relish, to hearing the same sarcasm and dissent laced with Burton's divine baritone.

For starters, Burton didn't look the part. A 33 year old with a life of hard drinking and smoking is likely to have some difficulty passing off as a young man in his twenties. I was willing to brush aside the inaccuracy of Porter's appearance. After all angst knows no age, and a man as angry as Porter might as well look a decade older. Burton's performance seemed restrained. The baritone was intact, but there was something resigned and very complacent about his rage. It was as though he had been angry for ten years and had gotten fed up of his own bickering. At times it looked as though he struggled to deliver the lines that otherwise spring from the pages of the book and make you grit your teeth.

On the other hand, I loved Mary Ure as Alison. There was something very beautiful and disquieting about her  mild mannered vulnerability. She was convincing as the exhausted young wife, who gave up life as she knew it to live with a man who put her on trial for her upper class upbringing and for every letter she wrote to her mother. A particularly poignant moment in the film is when Alison visits the doctor only to learn that she is pregnant. She asks him if it's 'too late to do anything' and the doctor says, 'Don't ever say that'. She is shifty and uncomfortable around Jimmy, her squirrel like eyes waver as she avoids eye contact with him. I also liked Gary Raymond as Cliff, but thought that he was too handsome for the part as described in the play.

Another grouse I had with the movie was the introduction of characters that weren't in the play. Here, the character in question is an Indian vendor called Kapoor who faces discrimination at the hands of the inspector. The other vendors, with the exception of Jimmy and Cliff, sabotage his business and force him to quit and move to another place. 'I'm an untouchable in my own country', he says when Jimmy asks him why he came to England. I found this addition to the script totally unnecessary and irrelevant to what goes on in the Porters' living room. Perhaps it was an attempt to rationalize Jimmy's dissent and to provide a tangible reason for his otherwise inexplicable rage. Besides, the original Jimmy Porter was meant to be an atrocious trumpet player, something to add to the consternation of the other characters and the reader. In the film, he plays like the next Louis Armstrong in the making.

At the end of the day, the film manages to stay within the basic framework of the play. It still is, in my opinion, a classic case of the play being better than the movie. There have been other remakes of 'Look Back in Anger' and I'm pretty sure that I won't be watching any of them. I'll make an exception if someone goes back in time, and brings back footage of the Old Vic production starring O'toole.

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