You won’t be­lieve it’s not Lau­rel and Hardy

In a new film, Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are dead ringers for the duo – but wait un­til they open their mouths

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY - ROB­BIE COLLIN

Whether or not you’ve ever won­dered what it would be like to hear Lau­rel and Hardy turn the air blue, Stan &

Ol­lie in­tended to show you. An early ver­sion of the forth­com­ing biopic be­gan with the beloved duo am­bling through a stu­dio back­lot at their Thir­ties peak, dis­cussing their per­sonal lives in terms that would have had the cen­sors of the day fall­ing out of their seats.

“I’m glad we didn’t do it in the end,” says Steve Coogan, who plays Stan Lau­rel in a reedy tenor. “But there was a draft that re­ally went for it. ‘Guess who the f--- I saw the other day,’ and so on. And ev­ery­one in the room was like…” He pulls a hor­ri­fied face.

“This is not your grand­mother’s Lau­rel and Hardy,” booms John C Reilly, the Ol­lie to Coogan’s Stan, putting on his deep­est movi­etrailer voice. “Well, we tried that. But it was de­cided that we should take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.”

Ac­cord­ingly, the lan­guage was di­alled back to PG – but the dis­cus­sion it­self, with its lev­el­headed re­flec­tions on al­imony pay­ments and du­bi­ous em­ploy­ment con­tracts, re­mained in the film. For lovers of two com­edy ti­tans who couldn’t broach such sub­jects on screen with­out the ceil­ing fall­ing in, that in it­self is shock­ing enough.

That back­stage per­spec­tive is what Stan & Ol­lie is all about, tri­an­gu­lated by Coogan and Reilly via note-per­fect mimicry, ac­torly in­sight and some as­ton­ish­ing pros­thet­ics. Pro­logue aside, the film – from Filth di­rec­tor, Jon S Baird – is set dur­ing Lau­rel and Hardy’s fi­nal Bri­tish tour in 1953, when their pop­u­lar ap­peal was wan­ing and their re­la­tion­ship fall­ing apart. They were in their 60s at the time; Coogan and Reilly are both 53.

To­day, this Lan­cas­trian and Chicagoan two­some, each of Ir­ish Catholic ex­trac­tion, are roam­ing around their suite at The Savoy like a cou­ple of tod­dlers. Coogan is play­ing with the cof­fee ma­chine, while Reilly has his nose pressed against the win­dow, look­ing for the spot where they shot Lau­rel and Hardy’s ar­rival at this very ho­tel.

It is the af­ter­noon of Stan & Ol­lie’s UK pre­miere, for which both men are dressed in match­ing kilts – a nod to Putting Pants on Philip, the 1927 silent short that paired Lau­rel and Hardy for the first time. Sit­ting side by side on the sofa, Coogan has the mod­estyp­re­serv­ing pos­ture down pat:

Reilly makes some dicey ma­noeu­vres, but stops short of the full Ba­sic In­stinct. This is their first re­union since film­ing fin­ished more than a year ago, and you can hear the old repar­tee mech­a­nisms sput­ter­ing back to life.

Wildly dif­fer­ent though Coogan and Reilly’s ca­reers may be, it makes sense that a Lau­rel and Hardy biopic should be the in­ter­sec­tion point – and not just be­cause both have been fans since child­hood. Reilly broke into film at 24, in Brian De Palma’s Ca­su­al­ties of War, then played oafs, naïfs and kooks for di­rec­tors such as Martin Scors­ese and Paul Thomas An­der­son, be­fore be­ing nom­i­nated for an Os­car for his work in Chicago. He then dis­cov­ered a kin­dred comedic spirit in Will Fer­rell, with whom he made Tal­ladega Nights, Step Broth­ers, and the forth­com­ing Holmes & Wat­son.

Coogan, mean­while, took the re­verse route. “I couldn’t get ar­rested as an ac­tor, but I could get ar­rested as a comic,” he says. “So I did that and thought, ‘I’ll go where the money and work is, and fig­ure it out later on’.” His defin­ing cre­ation, Alan Par­tridge, tran­si­tioned from tele­vi­sion to film more smoothly than Coogan did: an at­tempt to break Hol­ly­wood in the early 2000s is best re­mem­bered, if at all, for a small-in-all-re­spects sup­port­ing role as a minia­ture Ro­man cen­tu­rion in the Night at the Mu­seum se­ries.

Far more fruit­ful has been his on­go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Bri­tish di­rec­tor Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, which has yielded (among other trea­sures) the pi­caresque sit­com The Trip with Rob Bry­don, and its two Europetrot­ting fol­low-ups. Then there was a star­ring role in Stephen Frears’ Philom­ena, whose four Acad­emy Award nods – and specif­i­cally, the one for best adapted screen­play – means Coogan can also call him­self an Os­car nom­i­nee.

Coogan ended up in Lau­rel’s flat-footed shoes thanks to Jeff Pope, his Philom­ena co-writer, who men­tioned one day that he was also work­ing on a Lau­rel and Hardy script. Too proud to ask for a shot at the co-lead, Coogan in­stead em­barked on a psy-ops cam­paign, telling mu­tual friends how much he ad­mired the leg­endary dou­ble­act un­til word made its way back to Pope. “He told me one day that some­one had men­tioned my name as a pos­si­ble Stan. And I said – air­ily – ‘OK, why not?’.”

Reilly was one of three Hardys sug­gested by Coogan (he won’t name the oth­ers). “But I was in­tim­i­dated by the prospect,” Reilly says. “I took it as a big re­spon­si­bil­ity. And I couldn’t quite imag­ine the make-up work­ing as well as it did. But I also re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Who else?’ I’ve talked my way out of jobs be­fore by suggest­ing peo­ple who would be The New Jersey vaudeville duo took to cinema like nat­u­rals, mak­ing 36 films to­gether – plus ra­dio and TV on the side – that kept their night­club-honed pat­ter rou­tines cen­tre stage. Af­ter finding fame sep­a­rately as a stand-up and a crooner, Hope and Crosby com­bined brought a wink­ing, proto-Rat-Pack cool to their seven glo­be­trot­ting Road to… come­dies. The part­ner­ship founded in The For­tune Cookie ran for 10 films with­out crum­bling – most fa­mously The Odd Cou­ple and Grumpy Old Men, whose ti­tles felt like brand names for their act. Po­lar op­po­sites who clicked, Pryor and Wilder’s four col­lab­o­ra­tions set out the mod­ern buddy com­edy tem­plate, at their best with a manic brio that’s never been matched. Fer­rell had Reilly in mind for An­chor­man, but Gangs of New York got him first: hap­pily, Tal­ladega Nights and Step Broth­ers (a mas­ter­piece) fol­lowed. A third, Holmes & Wat­son, is now im­mi­nent.

‘Who else could play Stan? Hugh Grant?’ asks Coogan. ‘Let’s not go there,’ says Reilly RC

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