You Hate Biopics — See Stan & Ollie Anyway

I have become suspicious of biopics these past few years. The main reason to see them is to learn something about someone whose work you love. But too often, they are heavy-handed and manipulative. My interest in Bohemian Rhapsody plummeted when I heard about how they had changed the timeline surrounding Freddie Mercury telling his bandmates he had AIDS and Queen’s Live Aid performance. And truth be told, I’m still disappointed that the battle of Sterling Bridge in Braveheart did not feature a bridge.

That being said, I plunged into Stan & Ollie with no reservations, and I’m glad I did. What a beautiful story. It’s based on A.J. Marriot’s book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours, one of three books Marriot wrote about the duo’s live shows. Those books just shot to the top of my reading list, if I can find them, since they are out of print. But the book gives me hope that I’m not being fooled by the film, that I am not incorporating a skillful myth into my historical knowledge.

Steve Coogan’s presence helps, too. Yes, he’s brilliant as Alan Partridge, but he has somewhat quietly asserted himself as a deft dramatic actor in films like Ideal Home and Philomena. If he is cast as a lead in a film or series, I feel comfortable it will have something to offer. He and John C. Reilly are perfectly matched in difficult roles. Laurel & Hardy had such distinctive mannerisms, in their signature dance and their elocution, that it would have been easy for the actors to succumb to caricature. And Reilly is encumbered with a fat suit. Numerous references to his health draw attention to that weight throughout the film.

None of that entered my mind while I was watching Stan & Ollie. I was focused on the relationship, the delightful and delicate balance both men walked between professional obligation and pure love for each other and their craft. This is the story of Laurel & Hardy at the end of their careers, when they were touring the U.K. to raise their profile to make another movie. It doesn’t start out well. They aren’t selling tickets. Oliver’s knees are bothering him and every show takes a toll on his health. Stan is writing the script for their comeback film, a Robin Hood parody called Rob ‘Em Good, and trying to lure a producer to the shows to prove people still want Laurel & Hardy. They are living on fragile potential, and they have to work for every filled seat doing nonpaid publicity engagements. Most people think they have retired, since it has been years since they made a film. In one scene, a woman asks who will be playing Laurel & Hardy at the show. When the boys appear in lobby and launch into a bit, she immediately forks over her cash for a ticket.

Ah, but the magic is still there onstage. Coogan and Reilly come to life in the stage scenes. I was struck by the artifice of Stan Laurel, how every move seemed to spontaneous but was chosen so carefully to make him befuddled. Eventually, the British audiences catch on, and the tour becomes successful just as old personal and professional issues threaten to tear Stan and Ollie apart. And this is where things usually get sticky in these kinds of movies. An impasse appears just when it is called for in the story arc, and I start to feel a bit hoodwinked. Not here.

At the height of Laurel & Hardy’s film career, Ollie was tossing away his money on horse races and numerous wives. Stan wanted to use their leverage to get a raise from Hal Roach, the producer who first put the duo together. Roach still had Oliver under contract, but not Stan. Stan puts together a contract at Fox, but Ollie sticks with Roach, making a film with another partner. Neither wants to bring it up at first. There are subtle but telling scenes where both men call home to their wives at the beginning of the tour and dance around their old grievances. Their love for each other is palpable in every dodged question about how they are getting on. And that pays off later when they finally have their big argument in front of a crowd at a fancy reception. Stan, who is forever typing new scenes and pushing for rehearsals on the train between the gigs, can’t conceive how Ollie could have done a movie with another partner. In an utterly heartbreaking moment, Ollie rips into Stan, calling him a hollow man who loved Laurel & Hardy, but never loved Ollie. Even this, their most painful moment, becomes slapstick that the attentive crowd mistakes for another publicity stunt. They are so trapped in the bit they can’t resolve the worst pain of their lives.

But the show is popular now, and Stan finds himself forced to work with another partner if he wants the show to go on. When Ollie collapses, Stan has to make the same choice he has held against Ollie all of these years. And if my heart wasn’t broken enough, then comes the scene where Stan explains this to Ollie, and Ollie understands. Again, this conversation happens in a kind of parody of one of their famous scenes. This is who they are. They can’t help it.

The last half hour of Stan & Ollie is just gut punch after gut punch. Stan tries to go on without Ollie, but he can’t. Even if it means refunding sold out shows. When his wife Ida, played by Nina Arianda, finds him and tries to comfort him, Stan finally allows himself the raw emotion to plainly state the nature of his relationship with Ollie. In the films, he says, none of the other characters know Laurel & Hardy, and they don’t know any of the other characters. It was just the two of them, and that’s the way they wanted it.

There are a couple of twists left in the story that validate that speech. It would always be the two of them, even though both have, in their twilight, loving, healthy relationships with wives who support them and care for them. Arianda as Ida and Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy deserve a lot of recognition for their roles, as well. Theirs is a wonderful story arc on its own, as they battle each other to get the best for their husbands, and eventually come to support each other, as well. As one character remarks, “Two duo acts for the price of one.”

One more punch left in the post script. Oliver Hardy died in 1957, a few years after the tour. He never worked with Stan Laurel again, but Laurel continued to write for Laurel & Hardy until he died in 1965. Stan & Ollie is a gorgeous romance. I’m not sure if it’s the truth, but I hope it is. Ain’t that love, in a nutshell?

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