TORONTO—There was a time when Billy Connolly’s most famous joke was about a man who killed his wife and buried her bottom-up in the back shed—so that he’d have a place to park his bike.
During an interview last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, however, the Scottish comedian told the Straight to look elsewhere for laughs in Quartet, in which he plays the youngest resident of a seniors home. Because the best joke of all, he said, is what happens when you get old.
Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, which opens Friday (January 18), is a gimlet-eyed comedy that takes place in an advanced-care home for elderly musicians. Connolly stars in it amidst a cast of British sirs and dames of a certain age, including Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay. Hoffman, apparently, is a regular at the Big Yin’s standup gigs and approached him about starring in his film. Working with Hoffman as a director was “brilliant”, according to Connolly.
“I think he’s been directing for years,” he said. “People called him a perfectionist, but all those years he was just getting better and better calling his own takes.”
Playing a senior citizen was beneficial, Connolly continued, because it educated him about a subject the 70-year-old comedian had been avoiding for some time.
“Thinking about it was good for me because I, for many years, have held the feeling that hospices and old-folks’ homes are all run by Nurse Ratched,” he said. Beecham House, the home for aging musicians depicted in Quartet, is comfy, elegant, and staffed by attractive professionals who treat residents with respect. Still, Connolly said, he worries that these places are in the minority.
“Many places, they fill [residents] full of fuckin’ drugs to keep ’em docile when they should be giving ’em marijuana and headphones and the music of their youth,” he affirmed. “Or give ’em a large whiskey at night before they go to bed. Instead of saying, ‘Well, he can’t drink; he’s had his drugs,’ I say take the fuckin’ drugs away and give ’em a single malt every night and a woman and Viagra.” (When it is pointed out that alcohol is a blood thinner and that blood thinners are contraindicated for Viagra use, he shrugged and said: “We’ll drop the Scotch, then.”)
In Quartet, Connolly plays Wilf, a womanizing former conductor whose time is split between hitting on the much younger gerontologist Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith) and caring for his friend Cissy (Pauline Collins), who is developing a mean case of dementia. It isn’t the first big-screen outing for the comedian. He’s been one of Hollywood’s go-to Scotsmen for years, notably as Queen Victoria’s servant opposite Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown, as the voice of Fergus in last year’s Scottish-themed animated feature Brave, and, most recently, as dwarf Dáin Ironfoot in the upcoming The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three Hobbit episodes from director Peter Jackson. He said, though, that these roles are seldom much of a stretch and that Quartet’s Wilf was no different.
“The costume and hair and everything was me, except when I have a wee stroke. For that part, I had to act, but otherwise I just behaved like myself,” he said. “People think that all old people behave the same, but nae, they don’t! Because young assholes have a tendency to become old assholes, and young jolly people stay jolly when they get old.”
Connolly provides the edge in an admittedly not very edgy story about the old grudges and passions of four of the home’s residents, who used to form a musical quartet. In an era in which many comedians are beating the bushes for more and more extreme material, a sweet love story suited him just fine. He’s been known in the past for pushing the envelope, so does Connolly worry that by starring in a gentle comedy about an old-folks’ home that he may lose that part of his audience that appreciates a foul mouth and a fouler sensibility?
“There comes a point when you don’t give a shit what anybody thinks,” he explained. “It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s lovely when it does. Criticism used to worry me before, but I can suddenly write it off. It’s too late. I don’t have the time to spend thinking about it anymore. I need that time to live with.”
Besides, he added, it’s always the audience that has the last word. “With remote controls controlling the material, it’s all up to the audience. If what’s on the screen is hurting your feelings, I say, ‘Well, move your thumb, you lazy fucker!’ ”