Laurel and Hardy were comedy icons of Hollywood’s classic era, their names conjuring images of bowler hats, buffoonery and slapstick squabbling to rival Chaplin, the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges in the popular consciousness. Star Wars’ bickering droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are just two of their many on-screen acolytes.
It’s surprising, then, that this week’s Stan & Ollie — a gentle, bittersweet account of their rather less lively twilight years — is the first time the famous comedy duo have been given any kind of biopic treatment.
Director Jon S Baird’s BBC co-production jumps ahead from a brief prologue set in 1937, near the peak of the pair’s popularity, to focus on a late-career chapter that finds the British Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and American Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) on a tour of Blighty’s music halls in 1953.
Teaming with a dubious promoter to drum up funding for their proposed film of Robin Hood, Laurel and Hardy wheel out their signature routines — like County Hospital’s irrepressible “hard-boiled eggs and nuts” — but find themselves playing to scattered audiences in second-rung theatres. It’s an age of Cinerama, television, and a new generation raised on re-runs; many don’t even realise Laurel and Hardy are still alive.
Both Coogan and Reilly, accomplished comedic performers in their own right, add a wonderful sense of lived experience to the uncanny physical makeovers they’ve been given on screen.
As Laurel, Coogan shapes his mouth into a comical grimace, delivering his dialogue in a version of the thick head-cold voice he uses for The Trip’s impersonations of old Michael Caine. His light-blue contact lenses mimic the exaggerated, black-eye look Laurel had in early film stock, giving him a kind of haunted depth; while elsewhere, the actor adds lovely grace notes, like filing down his shoe heels to replicate Laurel’s signature flat-footed waddle.
Reilly, meanwhile, transforms his already considerable height to match Hardy’s corpulent gait, with the help of prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier (whose recent credits include Suspiria and Bohemian Rhapsody).
At 53 apiece, the actors don’t seem quite as grizzled as their subjects, who were both well into their 60s at the time the film is set, but Reilly and Coogan simulate their comic exuberance with palpable relish.
The energy peaks during Stan & Ollie’s early moments, with Laurel and Hardy gallivanting on the set of their 1937 film Way Out West and arguing with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over contract negotiations.
And Baird hints that his film might proceed in tribute to Laurel and Hardy’s style — teasing vaudevillian asides involving a hotel desk bell, or luggage sliding down stairs, amidst the drama.
Would that it were more of a fine mess of such antic energy.
Biopics about comedians can be a tough act, often torn between impulses to recreate their subject’s famous public routines and perform some form of dramatic personal inquiry.
As written by Jeff Pope, who penned Coogan’s Philomena, Stan & Ollie plays things safely down the middle, cleaving to a familiar biopic model in which a late-career moment acts as a catalyst for former greats to reflect upon their lives and relationship. The comedy is amiable, but the sentiments can sometimes feel generic.
Still, there’s undeniable poignancy to the film, in large part thanks to the tender, charming performances of Coogan and Reilly.
Both come in-built with their own career resonances, and you can sense their deep admiration for Laurel and Hardy, not just as comedy greats, but as hard-working performers who’ve dedicated their lives to bringing mirth to audiences.
It’s easy to imagine each drawing on their own respective experiences with Rob Brydon, or Will Ferrell, comic couplings that owe a debt to Laurel and Hardy’s combination of antagonism and affection.
“All we had was each other,” Laurel reminisces late in the film. “And that’s the way we wanted it.”
Stan & Ollie might not capture the comedic energy of its subjects, but as a testament to a lifelong friendship, it’s hard not to be moved just a little.
Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from February 21.