Directed by: Peter Yates.
Written by: Ronald Harwood based on his play.
Starring: Albert Finney (Sir), Tom Courtenay (Norman), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Zena Walker (Her Ladyship), Eileen Atkins (Madge), Michael Gough (Frank Carrington), Cathryn Harrison (Irene), Betty Marsden (Violet Manning), Sheila Reid (Lydia Gibson).
The Dresser is about the stereotypical egotistical actor who cannot see any of the people around him except in the way they can serve him – and about his ever loyal dresser who gets him through one performance at a time with his complete and total devotion to him. It an over the top theatrical melodrama/comedy that stays just this side of becoming ridiculous – and anchored by two great performances by Albert Finney as the actor, and Tom Courtenay as his ever loyal dresser.
The movie takes place over two nights – beginning as a performance of Othello is just wrapping up, and then involving taking everything apart and travelling to a different theater in a different city to put on a performance of King Lear. Albert Finney’s Sir is an actor who always seems to be “on” – he is larger than life in everything he does – from putting on his performances on stage, to the way he deals with the other actors off stage, to simply putting on his makeup. He is clearly not well – on the day he is supposed to play Lear, he goes crazy in town, and has to be hospitalized briefly. But nothing can keep him from the stage – not even himself. He is convinced he cannot possibly go on, but Norman, his dresser, will not let him give up. Despite the fact Sir doesn’t even know what play he is supposed to be putting on (he starts putting on black face to play Othello again), or that even when he does realize that he is supposed to play Lear, cannot remember any of his lines, Norman will not let him give up – getting him ready by sheer force of will, and assuring everyone else that Sir is fine, when he clearly is not.
The supporting cast is filled with interesting character who get a few good scenes – Edward Fox as a resentful supporting player who thinks he should be the star, Zena Walker as Sir’s wife, who cares for him in a way, but knows he would probably wouldn’t notice if she was gone. Eileen Atkins as the stage manager who has held a not so secret love for Sir for years. And Cathryn Harrison, as a young actress who thinks that Sir may be in love with her, when really, he just thinks that because she is skinnier than his wife, she would be easier to carry on stage when he needs to.
Yet as good as the supporting players are, this is really a two person show. As Sir, Albert Finney is a great, boisterous presence who commands every scene he is in. He is a man of massive ego who doesn’t seem to realize just how much everyone around him has to do to make sure the plays go off without a hitch – in his mind, he’s the center of everything. And Tom Courtenay is even better as Norman, his dresser, who lets Sir think just that. He has devoted his life to Sir, but sees himself as the real heartbeat of the theater – Sir would be nothing without him, and he is sure that Sir sees it the same way. The fact that Sir cannot seem to be bothered to care about Norman at all, never seems to dawn on him. Courtney’s final scene is when he finally gets to see everything as what it really is – and it’s devastating to him.
The film was directed by Peter Yates, who was an under rated director, perhaps because you never really knew what to expect from him on a movie by movie basis. He made two great films – the crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) that gave Robert Mitchum one of the best roles of his career, and the small town biking drama Breaking Away (1979) about the rivalry between the townies and the students in an University town. In The Dresser, he spends a great deal of time focusing on the backstage drama – the details of what needs to get done to put on a play – and there are some great moments (a highlight would be what needs to be done to create the sound effects for the storm scene in Lear). But he also clearly sees this movie for what it is – a character study of a man, Norman, who doesn’t realize how the rest of the world, especially Sir, sees him, and how it destroys him to find out. You go through The Dresser thinking it is an entertaining backstage comedy, and then realize just how deeply felt it is only at the end.