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DRESSER, THE(director: Peter Yates; screenwriter: Ronald Harwood/from the play by Ronald Harwood; cinematographer: Kelvin Pike; editor: Ray Lovejoy; music: James Horner; cast: (Albert Finney (Sir), Tom Courtenay (Norman), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Zena Walker (Her Ladyship), Eileen Atkins (Madge), Michael Gough (Frank Carrington), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Cathryn Harrison (Irene), Betty Marsden (Violet Manning), Sheila Reid (Lydia Gibson); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Peter Yates/Ronald Harwood; Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment; 1983)
The showbiz drama should be especially appealing to theater lovers.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Peter Yates (“Robbery”/”Breaking Away”/”Bullitt”) helms this competent, joyless, and stagy backstage drama adapted from the award winning hit 1980 West End play and 1981 Broadway play by Ronald Harwood. What saves it from its dreariness are the lead performers, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay (both nominated for Oscars), and their hammy performances (though Eileen Atkins comes through in the pinch to actually almost steal the show as the long-suffering and love-lorn stage manageress who thinks the cranky and vain stage actor Finney should be committed to the looney bin), its odd sense of showbiz humor and its penchant for detail giving it a look of authenticity.

It’s set in London in 1940 during WW II, at a time before America joined the war. “Sir” (Albert Finney), the aging once famous actor is actor/manager of a small-time traditional Shakespearean acting troupe touring the provinces of Great Britain. He’s a senile boozer who is looked after by his devoted poof dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay). The nagging and sharp-tongued middle-aged Norman is the only one able to reach the out-of-control actor and get him back to sanity. In one sequence Sir berates the second-rate actors in his ensemble after they try to upstage him during a performance of Othello, as he calls them “Old men, cripples and nancy boys.” Sir’s stuck with them because the best actors have joined the war effort and the members of this lowlife repertory company has been exempt from military service.

Norman is convinced that if Sir wasn’t allowed to perform, he couldn’t go on living. He therefore uses all his tricks to make sure his difficult to control boss performs no matter how wrecked he gets from booze and stress and taking his work home by going mad like Lear. A great part of the film takes place in the theater, where an exhausted Sir plays Lear for the 227th time but still suffers from stage-fright.

In one sequence at a railroad station, when Sir’s older actors can’t walk fast enough to catch a train pulling out of the station, Sir shouts with his commanding stage voice: ”Stop the train!” The train stops and Sir, his younger wife (Zena Walker) and the others climb aboard.

The Dresser is a valentine to the theater and a bitter-sweet character study of a complex intimate bond between the pompous actor and the pampering valet, who lives vicariously through the great Shakespearean actor’s performances. The actor has grown more reliant on his dresser to get him through his darkest days in the theater, but won’t admit it. It paints an accurate picture of wartorn England and is filled with backstage insights and theater lore. It’s based on the real-life of the actor Sir Donald Wolfit, who was born in 1902 and died in 1968 (playwright Harwood was briefly Wolfit’s dresser). The showbiz drama should be especially appealing to theater lovers.

REVIEWED ON 10/28/2008 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”