Can you believe it? It was twenty years ago when six unemployed Sheffield blokes started wiggling their manhood and dancing cheek to cheek to the rhythm of Tom Jones, Hot Chocolate and Donna Summer. All they wanted was to get some money, and maybe, just maybe, cast a spell on a couple of bonnie lasses. Instead, they enamoured international audiences with their British charm, winning personalities and crowd-pleasing nudity, while The Full Monty quickly became one of the highest-grossing films of 1997.
I can well imagine all those deep sighs and/or eye-rolling when someone pitched a bunch of execs and financiers an idea for a quirky comedy about six moderately handsome ex-steel mill workers who decide the best possible way to earn money is to strip before hundreds of horny women and wildly amused half-drunk men. Wait, what? Why would they do such a thing, knowing that – at best – they are not much to look at? Shouldn’t we present the poor British working class, left unemployed and desperate by Thatcher’s harsh policies, with at least some kind of dignity? May we consider doing this film with a gang of busty women instead of five skinny dudes and one chubby guy? And who the heck is this Monty fellow?
Whatever you may think of it, this isn’t some whimsy on my part. There is a bunch of stories and anecdotes, told by members of the cast and crew, that paint a picture of a troubled production period ending with the first cut that made the 20th Century Fox people shriek in terror. At one point, there apparently were talks of moving the film to straight-to-video distribution mode, which would bury it for ever. And leave millions of viewers around the world without the prospect of watching six ordinary guys conquering their fears and dancing butt-naked before women they like, and thus proving that physical perfection is a point of view.
But, to be honest, The Full Monty does seem a bit far-fetched on paper, and it might have really sucked in its chaotic beginnings, before director Peter Cattaneo, producer Uberto Pasolini and editor Nick Moore edited the hell out of it in a desperate attempt to make the story work and receive a theatrical run. Nowadays, after twenty years of enjoying the cinematic company of our favourite out-of-luck working class fellows who go big by wearing only a smile, it’s easy to forget that some of the characters behave like real wankers for half of the film’s running time. They steal, they offend others, they have a blatant disregard for any kind of authority. If they could, they would drink and gamble and smoke all the time, and once in a while ruin the plans of others, like the time when they make their former foreman mess up a job interview.
It’s also easy to forget how great a risk it was to invest 3.5 million dollars on a theoretically heart-warming comedy with such crowd-pleasing themes as death, social injustice, homosexuality, and suicide running in the background*.
And yet they did make it a heart-warming comedy for the ages. A universally understood ode to the human spirit and the complexities of the male soul, with six wholly unimpressive blokes – an arrogant prick with a mullet and aliments to pay; a kind-hearted fellow with weight problems; an elegant older chap with an affection for porcelain gnomes; a redhead security guard with no mates; a black guy called Horse with an experience in breakdancing; and finally a Singin’ in the Rain fan with huge… feet – who make you laugh, cry, reflect, and feel the need to call your friends and say your life wouldn’t be the same without them. This story works in part because the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy – who would later pen Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and get an Academy Award for it – made sure all the main characters had recognizable problems and obstacles to overcome.
Gaz (Robert Carlyle) couldn’t be more irritating, but he fights for his son’s love as well as his ex-wife’s appreciation. Dave (Mark Addy) would like to become the man he always wanted to be, if only for his wife’s sake. Gerald (Tom Wilkinson) is ashamed to be unemployed and is able to sacrifice everything just to gain control over his life once again. Lomper (Steve Huison) takes care of his elderly mother and struggles with an idea that nobody would give a damn after his death. Horse (Paul Barber) has quite a large family and some sexual issues, emphasized in a brilliant scene when the character calls the manufacturer of penis-pumps to complain about their product. And Guy (Hugo Speer)… well, Guy does not seem to have any significant problems in his life, but he would like to be able to dance on walls and ceilings like Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, and that has to count for something, right?
They may be wankers or even losers on whom you wouldn’t like to model your life, but they are believable wankers and their problems are painfully real for anyone who hasn’t been born with a silver spoon in mouth.
And while we’re at it, one of the most brilliant things about Beaufoy’s script is that, at heart, The Full Monty is a love story. Not a typical love story between a man and a woman, or a parent and a child, although the film includes all those too – a love story between a man and his masculinity, or the idea of it that’s shaped by the societal pressures. These are men who were raised as a part of a conservative British nation, valuing hard work and finding happiness in the continuity and predictability of working one’s ass off for his family’s well-being. Thus, after losing their jobs because of something they had no power over, they feel somewhat lessened as men. They begin to lie and cheat and slowly push their loved ones aside, for the sole reason of not having to consider how un-male they have become. The journey they go through in The Full Monty makes them regain their lost masculinity, and strengthen it in ways they would never think were possible.
See, the brilliance of The Full Monty is that, without disrespecting the world the characters live in and the values that shaped who they are as human beings, Peter Cattaneo’s film suggests that there is more to being a man than perfect abs and the look of a Greek demigod. The message is simple – if you accept who you are, people will accept who you are, too, and if not, they’re not worth having them in your life – but one that should be promoted much more in today’s increasingly artificial world with its obsession with Photoshopped physical perfection. Ultimately, the guys face their greatest test – going full-frontal before hundreds of people – because they are supported by their current spouses, ex-wives, friends, colleagues, family, even random people who simply feel the uniqueness and the magic of the moment. They face the challenge because they have each other, because they became friends in the process, and can free their willies this one time without thinking someone will call them names.
There are many more elements to the magical formula that has made The Full Monty the phenomenon it still is today. The understated acting, the dark humour, the comedic timing, the wonderful production design, the believable costumes, the clever camera work, the soundtrack with its musical evergreens and quirky, playful themes for which Anne Dudley was awarded with an Oscar statuette (The Full Monty was also nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen categories). And many more. But the truth is, it’s better not to overanalyse it. With films like The Full Monty even dancing on walls and ceilings seems doable. And this should be enough to watch it again and again.
Or, to paraphrase a character from another successful British comedy, shot only six years after The Full Monty became an international phenomenon: Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the male-stripping show at a dingy club in Sheffield where six unemployed British blokes prove time and time again that being a man is not about physical perfection, but having the courage to be the man you always wanted to be.
* There is one more important thing to mention when writing about this 1997 British hit. The Full Monty is one of many examples of cinematic success stories that are no longer possible to replicate. If Peter Cattaneo’s comedy was made nowadays, the Internet would mock, meme and murder the whole buzz surrounding it, making it impossible for the story to catch up with the viewers’ imagination, while the political correctness would distort many of its themes because there’s too much of this and too less of that.
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