Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his 1980 London comedy-drama, this is indisputably one of the best films every made about theatre. It’s funny, compassionate, compelling, and in its final moments pulls off an uncanny juxtaposition between the emotionally and physically crumbling Albert Finney and the character he’s playing on stage for the 227th time, King Lear.
Finney portrays an aging, spoiled, grandiloquent actor-manager of a traditional English touring company whose dedication to his art creates chaos for those around him. The only character who can handle the old actor is his gofer-valet Norman, played with an amazing dexterity and energy by Tom Courtenay.
Director Peter Yates brings to the film, much of it shot at Pinewood, a strong visual sense of the British experience in wartime. And the whiff of greasepaint, particularly notable when aide Courtenay goads Finney into his makeup for Lear, lends the tawdry dressing room world of touring theatre its most physically felt detail.
Harwood is said to have based much of his story on his experiences with flamboyant actor-manager Donald Wolfit (1902-68) and his troupe.
1983: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay), Adapted Screenplay