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From the Vaults: Angry Old Man

Before he was in 'Quartet,' Tom Courtenay was part of a much bigger club

By Kimberley Jones, 1:30PM, Sat. Jan. 26, 2013

Tom Courtenay in 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'
Tom Courtenay in 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'

In this week’s new release Quartet, Tom Courtenay plays a retired opera singer suddenly thrust into the same path as his ex-wife. He spends the first half of the film as something of an angry old man – but it was as part of the “Angry Young Men” midcentury movement that Courtenay first made his name.

The movement got its start in theatre, with playwright John Osborne’s seminal Look Back in Anger, a searing look at working class discontentment in the British Midlands of the 1950s. Tony Richardson turned it into a film in 1959 with Richard Burton, launching the British New Wave, which was the subject of a 2007 Austin Film Society Essential Cinema series, “Blokes 'n' Birds: British Realist Cinema.” At the time, Josh Rosenblatt wrote that Look Back in Anger was “the classic example of angry-young-man cinema, which would become all the rage in Britain over the next seven years … it's also a true work of sociological art, indebted to the Italian neorealist school and to 1930s French poetic realism but adding a touch of British irony and proletarian grit.”

Richardson – one-time husband of Vanessa Redgrave and father to Joely and Natasha Richardson – would go on to direct another British New Wave landmark, 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, starring Courtenay. Describing Courtenay’s work in Long Distance Runner, Rosenblatt made a comparison to yet another angry young man – this time, an iconic one from Rebel Without a Cause: “Courtenay’s Colin Smith is the damaged, observational heir to James Dean's Jim Stark – rail-thin and rebellious but with a passion directed more inward than out.”

For his efforts, Courtenay won a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, and followed that award the next year with a BAFTA Best British Actor nomination for Billy Liar, another British New Wave standout. Though he’d go on to be Oscar-nominated for his work in 1965’s Doctor Zhivago and 1983’s The Dresser (the latter based on a Ron Harwood play; Harwood also scripted Quartet), Courtenay never achieved the kind of international success as contemporaries Burton, Albert Finney, or Peter Finch. Still, any serious conversation about the British New Wave has to include Courtenay’s contributions.

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