Butley (1974): Alan Bates at his Best in Pinter’s Adaptation of Simon Gray Play

Simon Gray’s highly acclaimed play, “Butley,” brought to the screen by British playwright Harold Pinter, boasts an astounding, Oscar-caliber performance from Alan Bates. (Bates has previously received one Best Actor Oscar nomination, for “The Fixer,” not one of his greatest films).

The tale Depicts one typically bad day in the life of Ben Butley (Bates, at his most handsome and endearing), a smart but lazy English professor. His academic mobility is challenged by a slick, accomplished, younger woman, and it doesn’t help that his former wife, Ann (Susan Engel), shocks him with her intent of marriage a man he simply cannot stand.

Things get worse, when Butley’s lover, Joey Keystone (Richard O’Callaghan) announces on the same day that he is leaving him for a more ordinary but younger male than Butley

Narratively, the tale seems bleak, even tragic, but the writing benefits from a comedic-ironic tone. As interpreted by Bates, Butley shows remarkable, often campy and bitchy wit and biting repartee, which transform this otherwise severe tale into a joyous celebration of life in all its fables and foibles.

Bates, openly gay at that time of his career, gives a tour-de-force performance as the bright, cynical Butley, never lapsing into self-pathos in this scathing up-to-the-moment satire.

Pinter is a great playwright, but not much of a craftsman or a filmmaker, and so the film is shapeless. Dragging along, it also fails to justify its excessive length. But there is real pleasure to be had from the high-caliber of writing and acting. Alongside “Women in Love” and “The Go-Between,” “Butley” features prominently as a highlight in Alan Bates’ spectacular stage, screen, and TV career.

Over the years, “Butley”” has developed a small cult following among gay spectators.
Credits

Running time: 129 Minutes.
Directed and adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter
Play: Simon Gray