There’s a tendency for biopics of comedians to veer between two extremes – the chucklesome mania of performance and then the desolate introspection off stage. Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie treads a melancholic middle ground, suffused with nostalgia and a sense of nagging disappointment even when its two performers are in the middle of a crowd-pleasing routine. When a tour manager enters their dressing room to tell them they’re a big success and are about to be booked into a larger venue, the scene plays out like the gentle breaking of bad news. This glimpse of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s final days as a double act is the most bittersweet of comedies, underplayed at every turn, but then, like the boys themselves, unexpectedly light on its feet.
United Kingdom/Canada 2018
Certificate PG 97m 30s
Director Jon S. Baird
Stan Laurel Steve Coogan
Oliver Hardy John C. Reilly
Ida Kitaeva Laurel Nina Arianda
Lucille Hardy Shirley Henderson
Hal Roach Danny Huston
Bernard Delfont Rufus Jones
The film begins on the set of Way out West, where the duo reveal themselves to be amiable womanisers, their coffers drained by multiple divorces and gambling (in Oliver’s case). They are also disgruntled employees of comedy impresario Hal Roach; Stan, whose contract is nearly up, wants to go independent like Chaplin, or at least touch the boss for a pay rise, but Oliver is reluctant. Then the cameras start turning and Laurel and Hardy switch on the old magic, kicking up their knees as they perform their famously endearing dance in front of the rear-projection screen.
When we next meet the double act, it’s 1953 and they are embarking on a stage tour of Britain in the dog days of rationing – first stop, a second-tier hall in Newcastle. Stan keeps Oliver’s spirits up with the promise of a movie: a Robin Hood caper to be shot as soon as the tour is over. However, with Norman Wisdom booked into all the best theatres and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas, ticket sales are dishearteningly feeble. And eventually they will have to confront each other over the events that led to their split from Roach – did Ollie betray Stan by staying on to shoot a movie with Harry Langdon?
Thanks to Steve Coogan’s excellent impersonation, Stan – the mastermind who wrote the material – is the star of this film. He is a compulsive gag-teller, dropping a dry one-liner into every conversation or, yet more incongruously, some slapstick. Just as Laurel and Hardy’s professional partnership blossoms into a life-defining friendship, so their screen routines burst into their everyday business. When we see the middle-aged Stan collapsing under a clatter of luggage or letting his leather trunk slide down a set of railway station steps, we’re never quite sure if this is further proof of his devotion to the art of the gag or a little sleight of hand on the part of the film. Either way, it’s a welcome touch of showbiz sparkle in an otherwise understated drama.
Coogan’s transformation involves a slick of Brylcreem and some jug ears, but John C. Reilly, playing Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy, is encumbered by fat suits, battling a bulbous neck and even swollen hands. It’s remarkable, then, that he manages what likeness he does muster. Regardless, he plays Oliver as a sweetly forlorn chap who would be genuinely lost without Stan’s never-ending scripts. Both actors turn in impressive mimicries of the routines, from the ‘hardboiled eggs and nuts’ skit to a showstopping rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. And Baird frequently shoots both actors in a sympathetic two-shot or focuses on their hats or silhouettes, emphasising their physical similarity to the awkwardly matched duo.
While the relationship between the two ageing comics is the backbone of the film, as their oily tour manager says, with Laurel and Hardy you get “two double acts for the price of one”. The minute they are joined in London by their wives (Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel), the film is re-energised. The two women, fiercely loyal to their men and yet even less alike, crackle in their forced interactions. Henderson is familiarly brittle as the devoted Lucille, and Arianda pithy and hilarious as the strong-willed Russian, pathetically namedropping her minor role in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.
While reaching for, but not quite attaining, the pathos of, say, Buster and Charlie in Limelight (1952), Stan & Ollie is a perfectly judged tribute to friendship and the restorative power of laughter. Even at its most poignant, it summons a giggle, as when Stan completes a comic hat routine for an impassive receptionist. And at its funniest, with the duo on fire in front of an audience, it provokes a wistful longing for a finely honed comic art now only encountered on film.