Monday, May 18, 2009

My Alternate Reality Experience with Ken Russell's 'The Boy Friend' (1971)

It all started back in Greenwich Village, 1998. One evening, I borrowed this funny little movie featuring my beloved Twiggy from the local video store (yes, video) and then never returned it. I wasn't ready to let it go, so I paid to keep it, feigning that it had gone missing. In fact, it was very much present. Every day hence, for about two months. For two months I watched this movie. Even twice a day. At the very least, that is a grand total of 100+ viewings. Before you take pity on the poor soul who might do such a shifty thing, I'll admit that it doesn't seem quite right. But to this day I look back on that obsessive experience with the utmost amusement and fondness. It was so much fun. And I can even explain it to some extent.

At the time, I was also displaying dedication and focus to something else: a back problem I had since I was a wee one (could be described as a type of minor scoliosis, with deeply imbedded tension, that had its share of discomfort.) I was beginning to work on curing the problem on my own. With relentless effort, will-power and a lot visualizing, I resolved it completely in the course of about three years. It was hard work and something I am proud of. But back to "The Boy Friend", it really wasn't so strange to me at the time to be consumed by it. I was a recent graduate who had moved to NY with my own boyfriend. We lived in a great apartment, both considering what to do in the entertainment field, and had plenty of time to do as we pleased. I worked a few nights at the nearby hotspot, so during the day I was starting with this personalized back recovery and had time to myself.

I suppose that still doesn't explain why twice a day I'd want to spend time with Ken Russell's creation. It's all due to its own merits. This film is so brilliant. Silly, funny, charming. It is set in the 1930's and based on Sandy Dennis' famous stage play and musical of the same name from the 1920's. From an outside perspective, one would think it is a film adaptation of the play. But the mind of Ken Russell took this quite a bit further. There are three separate dimensions to this version: the musical play, in a matinee performance; what's happening off the stage with the performers, and each one's motivation; and their own crazy imaginations, often inspired by the play. It is so genius. The characters themselves live in these alternate realities. Each character is on his or her own 'trip' off the stage and each one corresponds with his or her stage character. It's funny to watch, a sort of organized chaos. Not to mention that the film is visually stunning.

I was captivated the first time, and just had to see it again and again. And what I started to do was create a
fourth dimension -- me, as a lowly audience member in the audience deprived theater. To this point,Twiggy's character Polly Brown, the assistant stage manager thrust onto the stage at the last minute when the star literally breaks her leg (because after all, the ASM is the understudy for every role) looks out from behind the curtain and says in her cockney accent: "Bligh me! There's more on stage than in the bloomin' audience." Priceless. And one of my favorite film quotes because it's so true in life, as well.

Part of the fun was just that... you see the seats, and they're nearly empty, and there's the occasional sparse clapping from one or two loners in the audience. I loved being part of this bad matinee performance, and in a way it was fun to revisit because I felt part of the group, the monotony of being at a matinee and performing each day to a near empty theater. It was as though I'd embarked on the pathetic and hilarious journey with these characters. It was a bit like "Groundhog Day" too, because each day I learned something new. Of course I memorized all the lines, the songs and the dances. I indulged in that rare luxury of pure entertainment, and this continuous escapism was my own alternate reality... an extended retreat within the fourth dimension to the film's other three.

A month or so after my bizarre marathon with "The Boy Friend", I found myself at a Broadway singing class in a sort of fascination, out of curiosity, wanting to observe. But the vocal coach told me as long as I was there I should do some scales. I didn't want to but he insisted, so in front of class full of Broadway hopefuls I went through the scales, higher and higher, and with little to no effort. I hadn't any idea I could sing like that, but "The Boy Friend" must have brought that out. The singing coach told me I'm a 'pure soprano', that with training I could sing anything on Broadway. Anything Julie Andrews sang, he said, for example -- as he was an older gentleman who would equate any proper soprano singing with her. Oddly enough, though, Julie Andrews' Broadway debut was in the role of Polly Browne in – you guessed it -- The Boy Friend! Chilling what a little focus can do, isn't it? This merely enhanced what was already an enjoyable experience. I did not want to pursue a career on Broadway, but I'll always know someone believed I could. And that's, again, all thanks to "The Boy Friend".

I've since wondered why I watched it so many times, deliberately. I prefer for there to be some purpose in my actions and behavior. I'd have been fine keeping it all to myself as a funny little secret. It never occurred to me then I'd have any reason to share it, if not for  this blog. It's definitely in keeping with Retro Activity. And in fact, if there is any one film I'd dedicate this entire blog to, it would be "The Boy Friend."

Here is one scene I could find from Ken Russell's madcap masterpiece. The film is a rare gem, unfortunately, having never even been released on DVD:

Note: Ken Russell sadly passed away today, November 28, 2011. 

When I first wrote this in 2009, a DVD version of "The Boy Friend" hadn't been released yet. It's good to know there has been a release of it, finally. Here is a more recent clip from YouTube. I might have to create an homage to "The Boy Friend" to share, myself.

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