Stan & Ollie

The Myrna Loy

(PG)

Grade: B+

My wife Sue enjoyed some deep, abiding friendships with dear souls such as Beth, Connie, Donna and Maggie.

Maybe it’s gender, or maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always had fewer close friends – deservedly so, because I haven’t invested the time or energy to cultivate and nurture them.

I regret that now, and have pledged to become more like my friend Pravin, who refuses to let friendships fade, no matter the distance and time.

If we men need a model for cultivating friendship, we could do no better than to marvel at the bond between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s a new book about their friendship, and a review started this way.

“Our world would be poorer without two other worlds: Narnia and Middle-earth,” wrote Chris Armstrong on Christianity Today’s website. “Yet if two young professors had not met at an otherwise ordinary Oxford faculty meeting in 1926, those wondrous lands would still be unknown to us.”

It’s time to shift from the sublime conversations of Lewis and Tolkien to the ridiculous antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

I started musing about male-male friendship after enjoying the sweet film, “Stan & Ollie,” an uneven but tender portrait of the last chapter of the 35-year friendship/partnership of the legendary comedy duo.

They met in 1921 when Stan was 29 and Ollie was 31. They became a team in 1927, and remained steadfast friends until Oliver’s death in 1957 at age 65. They logged more than 100 films and short films together.

The film “Stan & Ollie” is more a portrait of their friendship than of their legendary stage and film career. More specifically, it’s the story of the last act of their career – a 1953 tour of England and Ireland when their fame was fading, and the seats were empty.

The inevitable lows in acting careers can be soul-defining moments. One classic scene comes to mind: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Those are the times when standing ovations turn to polite applause. The times when it’s hard to hear the cheers of the audience, because the empty seats next to them are screaming so loudly.

Laurel and Hardy are portrayed as vulnerable, humble men whose egos were not so well fortified as to keep away the stings of doubt when their stars began to fade. It’s at that time that their friendship showed strains too, leading to some nasty exchanges about blame and betrayal.

Marriages develop stress fractures when money is tight, as do business partnerships.

The beauty of this script is its focus on the changing texture of friendship during hard times. Harsh words are spoken, and later regretted. We search to blame another rather than to inspect ourselves.

The last chapter of the film is particularly poignant when Oliver suffers a heart attack and retires. Stan is so sad at the loss of his partner, that he sinks into depression. The producer replaces Ollie on stage, but one night Stan simply stays in the wing.

If Ollie’s not there, the show won’t go on.

Then Ollie defies the doctor and returns to stage, knowing he might die under the lights. Ollie’s love of show biz and his love of Stan keeps his tired legs kicking, if more slowly, and his voice singing, albeit less energetically.

The most tender moment finds Ollie in bed, recovering, and his friend Stan sitting on the bed, holding Ollie’s hand. That same scene plays out on a boat carrying them between gigs – sitting beside one another in deck chairs, holding hands.

During one of these moments, they forgive.

“Did you mean what you said that night?” says one, recalling a bitter exchange.

“No,” is the reply, followed by “Did you?” and “No.”

C.S. Lewis has written a great deal about friendship. He knew its value.

“Friendship has no survival value,” Lewis wrote. “Rather, it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”

But another passage is even more apt as we reflect on the friendship of Stan and Ollie. Lewis talks of how it’s the child in us that keeps us centered and healthy.

“It is the stupidest children who are most childish,” wrote Lewis. “And the stupidest grownups who are most grown-up.”

There are different ways to read that, but I see it as a call to keep our inner child alive – dare to be silly.

The “stupid” antics of Stan and Ollie – their ministry of silly dances – kept them young. And when they stopped being silly and argued, they became childish.

The beauty of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was that they let their inner children out of their soul for all of their lives. When we laughed at them, our own childlike joy returned.

More deeply, the abiding love between Ollie and Stan radiated through their performances. Their act was friendship unplugged, sharing their love for each other with all of us.

All of us Ollies need to find our Stan. All us Stans need to find our Ollie.

Laurel and Hardy were not a comedy act. They were simply friends, being silly while we watched.

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