The Subtle Genius of Oliver Hardy
Now that the Academy has announced Oscar nominations, I want to jump on a movie that didn’t get any before it fades away in theaters: Stan & Ollie. It’s a beautiful little biopic about comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and their final tour of Great Britain in 1953, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy. Nominations for Reilly, screenwriter Jeff Pope, and Reilly’s make-up and prosthetics team, seemed a real possibility, but Christian Bale got the fat actor nomination in this year’s Best Actor category playing Dick Cheney in Vice. He actually gained the weight, while Reilly took the fat suit route of Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and got skunked. Hard lessons learned. When given a choice, Oscar wants the real thing.
Much of the real Laurel & Hardy’s comedy was about two men failing to manage the world as adults. Stan & Ollie poignantly gets at that in their personal lives: their many marriages, drinking, gambling, and letting each other down personally and professionally. Stan & Ollie makes clear Stan was the team’s creative force, preferring Friday nights at home writing, while Hardy liked to…golf, sail, weekend in Tijuana, bet on the ponies, and lead the life of the movie star that he was.
But in weighting it that way, it sells Ollie a little short. Oliver Hardy remains one of the most subtle, expressive, naturalistic actors we’ve ever had in movies. He had what Pauline Kael called, in writing about John Travolta’s Tony in Saturday Night Fever, “The gift of transparency.” What she said about Travolta then applies to any actor with that gift: “One can read Travolta’s face and body… When he wants us to feel how lost and confused Tony is, we feel it. He expresses shades of emotion that aren’t set down in scripts.”
Their Finest Mess
True, Laurel and Hardy’s movies didn’t demand much soul-searching or operatic tragedy from Ollie, but he delivers any emotion necessary. One of their masterpieces, Helpmates (1932) showcases quite a range. It opens in the Hardy home, a post-party morning-after disaster, littered with half-finished fifths, dirty dishes, still-smoldering ashtrays, tipped-over furniture, and a hat tossed up on the chandelier.
And then we get an Oliver Hardy monologue. Eyes fixed directly on us, arms behind his back, imperious with disgust, he stands sternly in a bathrobe, an ice bag on his head. “There were times I had high hopes for you, but that time is past,” Ollie says with finality. It’s not Stan he’s lecturing, but himself, in a mirror, for throwing that party while his wife is out of town. In a medium shot from the chest up, Ollie never raises his hands or moves his body, concentrating it all in his voice and eyes. Ollie then gets a telegram saying Mrs. Hardy will be arriving earlier than expected, by noon that day. He needs to pick her up at the train station. In a panic, Ollie calls Stan, who hurries over to help clean up.
That’s the whole plot. Laurel and Hardy have to clean up a house, but fast. After Stan arrives, one expects the chaos to commence. Instead, the filmmakers (overseen by Stan) cut to a short while later, and we see that rarest of images in a Laurel and Hardy picture: success. The house is spotless. In a complete turnaround, Ollie is a changed man. He now stands before that mirror, showered, preening and posing in tweeds and whites, his high hopes for himself fully restored. To convey his changed mood, he now uses his hands and body, daintily dabbing cologne behind an ear, then leaning back to admire himself, a Rembrandt completing a masterpiece.
At the kitchen sink, Stan finishes the dishes, next to a table stacked high with sparkling clean china. It’s here that Hardy, walking to the kitchen, a lilt in his worry-free step, accidentally steps on a carpet roller, and goes flying through the kitchen door. We only hear the incredible crash of china. We rejoin Ollie lying face down on the kitchen floor, covered in broken dishes. Slowly recovering, he now looks directly to us for sympathy. It’s as much the laugh as Ollie covered in plates–an emotional punchline Oliver Hardy the actor gives us, reminding us that the cartoon we’re looking at happened to a human being.
It All Goes Wrong
The joke of Helpmates is how close Stan and Ollie always are to actually pulling this off. All that’s left for Ollie to do is leave and pick up Mrs. Hardy, but for one goof after the next: Ollie bursts a stovepipe Stan strung the drying linen on, covering Hardy in black soot, ruining his tweeds. A large can of flour hits Ollie on the head. Stan tosses a bucket of dirty sink water out the window and douses Ollie, ruining another suit. Stan turns the stove gas on to dry the suit, but forgets for too long, and when Ollie lights it, the explosion sends Ollie back the other way through the kitchen door, and so on.
After each disaster, Ollie’s various looks to us quietly reveal a range of their own: appealing for sympathy, telegraphing helpless frustration, growing anger, or heart-sinking resignation. Stan’s acting, equally funny, is just the opposite. When he cries, he shrieks like a toddler. He literally scratches his head when he’s confused, he nods with a “that’s it!” smile when he has an idea. The contrast between Stan and Ollie’s acting styles makes Ollie’s suffering believable, both physically and emotionally.
Ollie, in his last outfit, a ceremonial lodge suit with Napoleonic hat and sword, finally goes off to meet Mrs. Hardy. Again, Stan and his editors make an interesting cut, leaving out entirely this much-anticipated meeting. An hour later, Ollie returns home, with a black eye, punched-in hat, and bent sword. Then Ollie sees that Stan has burned down his entire house after starting a cozy fire for the returning lovebirds. The walls and roof are gone. Stan hoses down the smoldering ruins of Ollie’s once-again-destroyed living room, then breaks into tears trying to explain. Not caring anymore, Ollie goes to his one remaining easy chair and sits, a wide-open field behind him. “Would you mind closing the door?” he asks Stan quietly. “I’d like to be alone.”
Stan obliges and leaves. And then it starts to rain on Ollie as he picks a piece of lint off his pants, literally struggling for just a speck of dignity. Stan Laurel’s circular story brings us right back to where we started, with Ollie the king of a wrecked castle. But it’s Ollie, through his perfectly expressed disappointment in himself, his panic, pride, impatience, and smug superiority, who carries us through Helpmates. Stan’s particular genius for escalating slapstick stays (nearly) believable due entirely to Oliver Hardy’s particular acting genius, their lifeline to humanity.