Where do old stars go to fade away? On a tour of the British provinces, apparently, as evidenced by recent movies Film Stars Die in Liverpool, My Week with Marilyn and now Stan and Ollie, a gingery account of the last days of Laurel and Hardy.
For 20 years, roughly between the wars, sad waif Stan Laurel and bullying fatty Oliver Hardy were the kings of comedy. By 1953, when much of John Baird’s film is set, the world had turned its eyes to television and Laurel and Hardy found themselves playing a half-full house in Salford. And that, folks, is showbiz.
“Entertainment is a fickle business,” says John C. Reilly, who transforms himself into the hapless Ollie with the help of several lavish prosthetic chins. “People do have their heyday – and we’re trained in that disposable culture, right? What’s the latest music? What’s the latest movie? It’s amazing that in the context of that, these guys kept making work they probably thought was disposable themselves. ‘We’re making comedy. We’re just trying to make people laugh.’ And yet it has this timeless quality.”
Is it timeless? Essentially, they were preserving a kind of cheap entertainment that was already old-hat – vaudeville – by making it into movies that have in turn become antiquated; for at least one younger critic, their humour now seems to come from “a completely alien comic sensibility and aesthetic”.
Reilly, by contrast, still settles down for a binge of the films he studied for the part and finds himself laughing aloud. “That says something,” he says. “I don’t laugh out loud at Charlie Chaplin; I respect him and I think he’s a lovely performer, but I don’t laugh out loud at his movies.”
According to Steve Coogan, who plays drooping Stan, the timelessness of Laurel and Hardy lies in “the small minutiae of human feeling and vulnerability” underlying their meticulously crafted slapstick.
“I mean, I’ve done all kinds of comedy,” he says. “I’ve done the smart, clever acerbic stuff and I’ve done warmer stuff and really, at the end of the day, the hardest thing to do is make people laugh and do it with love. Being acerbic looks edgy and courageous but, in actual fact, it’s a refuge. It’s a safe place to be, to be cynical. You have no need to expose yourself. The paradox artistically is that when you do make yourself vulnerable, you make yourself stronger. Ultimately.”
Their humanity, says Reilly, reflects them and their relationship. Laurel worked round the clock, sustained by alcohol; Hardy liked food, ladies, gambling and a fine game of golf. They argued, offended each other, split and came back together, but their partnership endured while their several respective marriages came and went.
A culminating crisis comes in Stan and Ollie when Hardy collapses and is told by doctors that his heart is weak and he should stop working. He doesn’t. His partner needs him.
“I don’t think he chooses to die,” says Reilly. “He chooses to live and perform. That is a beautiful revelation you see Oliver have, which is: what else are we going to do? What is my ultimate purpose in life? What was all that golf about anyway? This is what I do! I love you and this is what we’re meant to do! It’s a late-in-life realisation, but a really important one.”
Their heyday may be gone, but that isn’t the point. The show must go on. And it does.