The One Film Every Millennial Must See from ‘The Criterion Collection’
Billy Liar is perhaps the one film ever selected for inclusion in The Criterion Collection that every millennial ought to see at least once. Just run a quick search for a query along the lines of “everything that’s awful about millennials”. It doesn’t matter what you find, where you find it, or who wrote it. What matters is that the titular Billy at some point or another in the course of this 98-minute film personifies the accusations of that generation’s greatest offenses. He’s unreliable. He’s irresponsible. He’s engaged to two different women in bad faith. He exasperates his parents by turning his back on all the advantages they sacrificed to give him. He pops “energy pills” with abandon. He’s a slacker at work, annoying his co-workers and trying the patience of his employers. Is the problem that he does not take anyone or anything seriously enough, or is it that everyone else takes everything else too seriously?
It might just be nice for younger viewers who feel besieged by the relentless hot take editorials about why they’re the most awful generation in the recorded history of our species to see that the same things said of them were said once upon a time about the crotchety old folks penning those hot takes today. For perspective, here’s Tom Courtenay as Billy, and here he is in his most recent film, 45 Years (also a fantastic film, incidentally, and one I hope eventually is selected for the Criterion treatment):
There’s more to my recommendation for millennials here than evidence of intergenerational hypocrisy, though. The core of storytelling is to make the personal universal, and vice versa. Perhaps the most identifiable moment comes when Billy erupts after being chastised by his irate father that he “ought to be grateful” for having an office job:
“Grateful? Grateful! Grateful for this, grateful for that; that’s all I’ve ever heard! Grateful you let me go to the grammar school!”
His father scoffs that that was “a chance we never had”, though whether “we” refers to Billy’s parents or their generation at large, is unclear. In any event, Billy has heard the admonition ad infinitum throughout the course of his life. “And don’t we bloody well know it!” he snaps back, continuing:
“What did you say when I told you I’d won it? You’d have to pay for the uniform, and I had to be grateful! And I’m supposed to be grateful to Shadrack and Duxbury for letting me sit at one of their rotten desks!”
This should all sound familiar. Hell, that outburst came to life and ran for President this year, but not enough of its supporters were able to register as Democrats in time for their states’ primaries. Billy Fisher is a representative for everyone who has ever seethed at being chastised for not appreciating their dissatisfying lives. It’s always true that someone, somewhere, would envy some aspect of our lives. It’s unfair and unreasonable to expect us to get out of our reality what someone else imagines it would mean for them.
Julie Christie is a breath of fresh air as Liz, who shares Billy’s wanderlust. She also knows all about his habitual lying and delusions and isn’t fazed by them. She just casually asks him to “count five and tell the truth”. Liz is the soul mate we all wish we could find when we’ve felt the most misunderstood — giving acceptance and even encouragement when no one else can or will. Many see Liz as a reflection of Billy’s fanciful ideas of who he could be; she’s actually left Yorkshire and had adventures, while he’s sulked at the Shadrack and Duxbury funeral home. Liz is also, though, the one person most qualified to call him out for not truly wanting to become a scriptwriter — which she does. (Why she keeps coming back to a place she hates is never addressed. Some may think it never occurs to Billy to ask and some may think he’s afraid of the answer. I think he already knows and is just being considerate.)
In his remarks for his Top 10 list for Criterion, actor Steve Buscemi wrote, “I saw John Schlesinger give a Q&A after a special screening at the Film Forum, and he said he didn’t feel that the ending was sad at all, just appropriate to Billy’s character.” Though we’re not explicitly told why Billy gets off the train, Schlesinger explains it with that one word: “character”.
Notice that the most triumphant moment he experiences is the performance of “Twisterella”. Sitting at the table with Liz, he’s able to allow himself to enjoy the surprise, but the moment attention is called to him, he flees. He becomes angered that his pal has advertised to the master of ceremonies (and, by proxy, to everyone in attendance) his announced plans of moving to London to become a scriptwriter.
I suspect most people read that anger as embarrassment, because that plan had already been nixed by Danny Boon just a few scenes prior – but I read more to it than that. I readily admit I may well be projecting too much of myself, but I see Billy’s outburst as also being about him rejecting the legitimate success of the band having picked his song to perform.
I have a hardcore impostor-syndrome issue, and one of the ways that manifests for me is that I downplay and dismiss pretty much anything I accomplish as soon as it happens. The more I hear about how good I did, the angrier I become that I did it at all, because I hate feeling that I’ve deceived that many people.
Now, I should add that I wasn’t committed to this reading of that scene at the time. It wasn’t until the penultimate scene, where Billy flees the train, that I became convinced of it. We already know he’s waffling about going to London. Again, I think the most obvious reading is that he doesn’t want to have to admit to Liz, or perhaps even to himself, that Danny Boon is a dead end and his fanciful notion of going to London and becoming a successful writer is all for naught.
Consider, though, that Liz has already demonstrated that leaving Yorkshire is entirely possible. He trusts her. There’s every reason to think that with her help, he could improvise and find a way to pull it off after all. At the very least, there’s every reason to want to give it a go. The possibility got him onto the train despite his encounter with Booth.
It isn’t until the band that performed his song gets on the train that he commits to leaving.
Contrast Billy’s reaction to them with his reaction to Danny Boon. Boon is an ideal, deflated when Billy sees him unable to even find enough takers for all the 8×10’s he brought to the grocery signing. With the band, though, he’s confronted face to face with real entertainers, people who put in the time and do the work. They get on trains. They stay up late. They rehearse. They schedule. They do all the things that a professional has to do.
He doesn’t try to ingratiate himself to them. “Hey, you know, I wrote that song you played tonight. I’d love to write you another.” That would be the obvious play, given the opportunity that the chance encounter seems to present. Instead, he contrives the first excuse he can manage to get himself off the train. He can’t bear to be in the presence of real entertainers like the band, or to be in the presence of a real traveler like Liz.
It isn’t a sense of duty to his mourning family that brings him back home. It isn’t an acceptance that he has to go in and face the consequences at the funeral home for his ill-conceived shenanigans. It isn’t even the discouragement that Danny Boon isn’t a ticket to fame and fortune.
It’s being face to face with the first meaningful step toward realizing the dream, a dream that Billy has been so browbeaten for having that even while he’s up to his eyeballs in it, he can’t entirely let himself accept having it.
I get that. It sucks, and I get it.
Liz also understands it for what it is, which is why she handles it as discretely as she does. Someone else might have argued with him, trying to convince him to go through with it. Not Liz. She gets it, and it may well be that whatever it is that keeps bringing her back home is the part of her that gets it, but whatever the reason, right up through their final moment together, she gives him understanding and acceptance.
Ultimately, that is why I would encourage millennials to see Billy Liar. It seems that understanding and acceptance are in short supply for their generation, and my hope is that they may find some in this film.