PETER YATES FOR THE DRESSER (1983)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment
Bruce Beresford for Tender Mercies
Ingmar Bergman for Fanny and Alexander
Mike Nichols for Silkwood
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Here’s a fun fact for Oscar nerds: The Dresser shares the distinction with the next year’s Amadeus as the last films—to date—to earn dual Best Actor nominations. This trivial connection reflects a deeper resonance between the films. Both Ronald Harwood and Peter Shaffer adapted the screenplays from their own stage shows, which set a capricious artist against an onlooker who beholds him with a mixture of resentment and self-loathing awe. However, as the titles suggest, the stories diverge in where they place the weight in this relationship. Shaffer & Forman’s sumptuous period drama places the character of Mozart (an offstage presence in the play) firmly in the center of the screen, presenting Mozart as a man favored by the court and loved by God, his genius issuing forth effortlessly before the eyes of an impotent Salieri. Yates’ modest wartime drama, meanwhile, has the actor known only as Sir toiling away as the head of a theatrical troupe at the height of the Blitz, his faltering talent extractable only through the heroics of his devoted backstage attendant. And that’s the key difference between the two films, evident in their titles: where Amadeus is fundamentally about the majesty of genius, The Dresser is about the tremendous sacrifice needed to support such a white elephant. Yates’ film is an intimate psychological contemplation of the faithful rather than the deity.
The night prior to the troupe’s staging of King Lear, Sir proclaimed he would awake with the storm clouds raging in his head. From that point, the film’s key mystery becomes whether Sir is merely channeling the old king or truly possessed by his madness. As played by Albert Finney, Sir is a Norma Desmond figure, a collapsing star whose persona has so overtaken his personality that two are no longer separable. Sir is unable to divulge anything directly; he can only reveal through elaborate charade. For his part, Tom Courtenay’s nancy boy Norman plays Fool to Sir’s Lear, using the expertly campy gestures and aphorisms as a canny guise through which to scold and cajole his volatile charge. While both dominate the screen, the narrative’s emphasis tilts subtly toward Norman—Ronald Harwood based the story on his own experiences as attendant to the Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit, making Norman both author and observer to the anonymous actor’s performance. This turns out to be quite important, as Sir proves incapable of telling his own story; his attempts to write his memoir yield only an outward-facing litany of thanks to those surrounding him. Sir ultimately remains pure exterior, a sharply observed but ultimately unknowable figure.
While the literal backstage drama would seem naturally suited toward a theatrical space, Yates builds the film around cinematic qualities of the narrative’s imbalanced perspective. Depictions of Sir are frequently bounded on either side by objects in the foreground, as though we were glancing sidelong at the actor from backstage, performing to an unseen crowd. Norman, meanwhile, turns away from his master and toward us to drop his sycophantic façade. Inside the dressing room and the narrow corridors behind the stage, Yates carefully attends to the movement of both actors and camera. Sir is the unstoppable and immovable, charging about like a force of nature or pausing like a bare wisp of a being; meanwhile, Norman tactically recedes out of his master’s light or steals into the foreground to seize the advantage. The painstaking movement of the camera reacts to the delicate ebb and flow in their battle of wills, particularly in a spellbinding dolly, slowly circling around from Norman’s determined pleas to Sir slowly returning to lucidity.
Perhaps most remarkably, though, Yates relies on sound to shape our perspective. The light application of James Horner’s somber overture, followed by the radio report on the war’s progress, combine to set an the elegiac backdrop to the story. Later, the conflict rears its head again with the frightening unseen soundscape of the bombing raid. Most importantly, though, Yates sets our perspective on Lear’s climactic storm scene in the suffocating din of the offstage mechanics that produce the howling wind and thunder. Sir’s booming dialogue is drowned out, as the scene remains on the unsung perspiration that is poured into elevating the actor’s greatness. Norman is the ultimate tragic figure in the film, consumed by his devotion to a master who roams above him, never fully reciprocating their relationship. His eventual purpose is to bear witness, and to extend his sacrifice to his own audience.
Like Yates’ uplifting small-town drama Breaking Away four years earlier, The Dresser was the little film that could on the morning of the 56th Oscar Nominations. In addition to its Best Actor feat, the modest British release slid past heavyweights The Big Chill and The Right Stuff in Best Director, Silkwood and Fanny and Alexander in Best Picture, and the decisively routed Yentl in both columns. To me, the 1983 Best Director slate is one where experience counts, with Yates falling between the lesser first-timers (Bruce Beresford, James L. Brooks) and the greater third-time nominees (Mike Nichols, Ingmar Bergman). Earning first nominations for their directors, Beresford’s stoic Crazy Heart prototype Tender Mercies and TV tycoon Brooks’ weapons-grade tearjerker Terms of Endearment both left me a bit underwhelmed, while the long-prodigal Nichols does quite a bit better with the grueling exposé Silkwood (the character’s expertly ambiguous exit remains a vivid memory). None, however, are competing in the same league with Bergman for his career-capping Fanny and Alexander. Also featuring a Shakespearean troupe (though far less centrally), the unofficial farewell film in Bergman’s legendary career peers into the inherent terror and wonder in childhood as few other works have ever managed. Fanny and Alexander remains a colossal feat and among the very best the category has to offer, but I’m very glad Yates could share a nomination for his modestly masterful drama.