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
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