One of the best sets of performances in the United States of any living legend was when Tammy Blanchard and Judy Davis played the young and older Judy Garland, respectively, in “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”. The British counterparts to those are Rhys Ifans and Aidan McArdle as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in this, a biopic of the meeting, pairing and tension between the comedic pair. However much of a biopic it seems to be is dependent entirely on strange stares toward what transpires here. Not exactly from the performers involved, but just some of the caricatures.
Ifans and McArdle disappear and become the men they portray. While watching Ifans smoothly recite and act Cook’s withering put-downs, and McArdle acting Moore’s piano skills (the hand movements were done by a 17-year-old, according to writer/director Terry Johnson’s audio commentary), you wonder if they themselves actually became those comedians on camera. Once “Action!” was called, did they suddenly inherit the minds of both men? Ifans and McArdle are Cook and Moore on screen. Ifans ceases to look like Ifans and the same with McArdle, especially with Moore’s longish hair in the back. Also entertaining are their co-stars at the beginning in the days of “Beyond the Fringe”, Jonathan Aris as Jonathan Miller and Alan Cox as Alan Bennett. Miller speaks with so much pretension, it’s as if he can’t let go of the words he says without losing his existence, which makes Aris even more entertaining to watch. He keeps speaking in that way for fear of forgetting his words. Cox looks a little like Peter Sellers, but is truly Bennett, quiet and a creator.
It’s in the throes of Cook and Moore’s career together that the tension begins to simmer. Moore is jealous of the women that Cook constantly has around him. He is resentful that Cook seems to get all the credit and he’s stuck in the background. But when he and Cook are together, it is quick comedy that proves the best in what they do. After “Beyond the Fringe” and through to the “Establishment” satirical nightclub and onwards with their BBC appearances, they have their great moments. Cook’s problem is with what he wants in his relationships, and he travels through three wives as a result. What hurts him the most after that first marriage in how his contact with his daughters is tragically reduced and a scene in which he breaks down at Heathrow Airport is entirely affecting. The man with all the words suddenly has no more. Once Cook and Moore get to America, that’s when director Johnson proves his worth, even when it results in some awkward missteps.
No matter what our commentators say about the state of television, and no matter what some interest groups argue about language spoken in the medium, they will never top what Johnson does in 15 seconds to point out our hypocrisy in America over it. Cook and Moore appear on a late night talk show which melts down into a snippy argument between the two, and Moore uttering the word “f**k” somewhere in there. The host cuts to a commercial and once they are off the air, pushes a makeup artist’s hand away and growls to Moore, “You watch your f*****g mouth.”
Awkwardness reigns when Johnson shows us Los Angeles, and the home of Blake Edwards (Alistair Browning). It’s not so much that New Zealand stands in for Los Angeles. Like Johnson says in his commentary, they were fortunate to have a day in Auckland full of sunshine to do that. But it’s that Edwards sports red hair and looks like his face has frozen into a smile. If this is Johnson’s way of pointing out some of the absurdities of Hollywood back then, it’s far too absurd. Not that there’s too much expected of Browning as Edwards, but Moore’s career is given short shrift in this time of him starring in “10”. Of course the choice is obvious as Moore’s career rose while Cook’s career fell and Moore had more time on this earth than Cook did. Johnson is an unusual man in that way, but in what he fails to do, either due to shrinking budget or lack of more time, he excels in, in other ways. For example, Cook’s third wife Lin (Daphne Cheung) gets so frustrated with how he pushes her away that she knocks the hell out of a lot of things in his kitchen, and director of photography David Odd uses the zoom function so quickly as to make the scene more effective. Played completely straight, with the camera just sitting there, it wouldn’t have the same feeling. Odd’s work makes “Not Only but Always” at least more interesting to watch, especially in those moments where “Pete ‘n Dud” comment on the goings-on in the movie.
It’s all very touching in many ways. And even when it’s hard to overlook how some of L.A. is portrayed (that many naked women around Moore all the time? Or is it just how Cook imagines Moore in that city?), Ifans and McArdle make this triumphant through their performances. Ifans has gone beyond the bumbling roommate in “Notting Hill” and one of Satan’s sons in “Little Nicky”. He should now have his choice of whatever the heck he wants to do and may it be as awe-inspiring as this. And hopefully Aidan McArdle has the same option. They’ve both got immense skill.