The Arena of the Unwell

Posted in Moving pictures, Something about the Beatles on September 4th, 2009 by bill
"I am a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum!"

"I am a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum!"

This is only tangentially Beatle-related, but last night marked my n-teenth viewing of Withnail and I, one of the great cult films of all time. The Beatles connections are that:

  • George Harrison was the executive producer of the movie, which was financed by his company, Handmade Films.
  • “Richard Starkey, M.B.E.” is credited as “Special Production Consultant.”
  • “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is on the soundtrack when the main characters return home to find the drug dealer Danny occupying their flat and Presuming Ed in the bathtub.

I’m proud to say that I saw Withnail in the theater back in 86 with my friend Tom. I think I understood about a quarter of it the first time around, but that was enough to let me know that something special was going on. Richard E. Grant’s performance as Withnail — vain, flamboyant, self-absorbed, and utterly charming, the sort of man who stands in his living room shouting “I demand to have some booze” as if that should be enough to make it so — is the stuff of legend. But he is nearly upstaged by Ralph Brown as Danny, the philosophical drug dealer with sunken eyes, an unidentifiable accent, and a babydoll possessed of “voodoo qualities.” The “I” character played by Paul McGann, a very thinly disguised version of writer/director Bruce Robinson, mainly serves as comic foil, but does get some good lines:

Withnail: I dislike relatives in general and in particular mine.

I: Why?

Withnail: I’ve told you why. We’re incompatible. They don’t like me being on stage.

I: Then they must be delighted with your career.

Well, I don’t want to get into reciting favorite quotes from this movie, because we’ll be here all day. After languishing for years in a poorly mastered, inexplicably incomplete VHS version, Withnail and I is now available on a lovely Criterion Collection DVD. If you haven’t seen it lately, why not have a viewing? And if perchance you’ve never seen it, well, you are living in a world of dangerous ignorance, and I suggest you do something about it.