Ronald Harwood based his play "The Dresser", and this film's subsequent screenplay, on the the biography "Sir Donald Wolfit CBE: His life and work in the Unfashionable Theatre", and on his own experiences as an actor and dresser for renowned Shakespearian actor Donald Wolfit. Harwood's repertory ensemble, Shakespeare Company, frequently performed Shakespeare's plays, and Harwood was Wolfit's dresser between 1953 and 1958.
The character "Sir" (played by Albert Finney) was inspired by Sir Donald Wolfit, actually a "Sir" as he had been knighted. The character of "Sir" in the film is only ever referred to by that title, and is never known by a name.
Actors Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay both received Academy Award Best Actor nominations for this film. The picture is a rare instance where the one film received two Best Actor Oscar nominations, a feat that would be repeated the following year with Amadeus (1984), where actors Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham were also both Best Actor Oscar nominated.
Actor Tom Courtenay played the dresser Norman on both the West End London and New York Broadway stages, and then reprised the role in this film version. Courtenay was nominated for the 1982 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Drama.
The original Broadway production of "The Dresser" by Ronald Harwood opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York on 9th November 1981 and ran for 200 performances until 1st May 1982. The production was nominated for the 1982 Tony Award for the Best Play.
This film was made and released about three years after its source play of the same name by playwright Ronald Harwood was first performed in 1980. Harwood also wrote the screenplay for this filmed production.
One of the movie posters for the film featured a long preamble that read: Tom Courtenay is The Dresser. The wardrobe man devoted to the Star. Albert Finney is The Star. The actor devoted to himself. The story is about their friendship. The tears. The heartbreaks. The joys. The fears. The devotion. The dreams . . . What happens backstage is always pure drama. And often pure comedy".
Both of the film's lead actors, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, came from the north of England. Both of their careers as actors had emerged during the 1960s, particularly in the British "kitchen sink"/"angry young man" melodramas of the period. Ironically, the two hardly knew each other.
One of the critic's names on a quote on the theater foyer reviews board is "R. Harwood" of the fictitious 'Portsmouth and Gosport Express'. The name is a reference to Ronald Harwood, the film's screenwriter, source playwright and also one of the film's producers.
Although "Sir" is based on Sir Donald Wolfit, the action has been transplanted back in time to the Second World War, a time when the real Wolfit, so far from being an elderly actor, poor in health and prone to lapses in memory, was actually only about 40 and at the height of his powers.
In 1980, The film's source play was nominated as Best Play at the Laurence Olivier Awards.
The screenplay is by Ronald Harwood adapted from his own award-winning play, which first captivated audiences on the London and New York stage in 1980. At the time that this movie was first made and released, the play had been translated into twenty-three languages and had enjoyed tremendous success in capital city seasons throughout the world.
Actor Tom Courtenay said of this film: "The play is about the interaction of the two men, and without denigrating the actors I played opposite in the stage versions (Freddie Jones and Paul Rogers) the fact that Albert is what he is (a true theatrical giant) makes it work better as a piece. I know that".
This is one of only seven films to receive more than one Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In this instance, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney were so nominated. The other six films were Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) for which Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone were all nominated, From Here to Eternity (1953) for which Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster were nominated, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) for which Maximilian Schell and Spencer Tracy were nominated, Becket (1964) for which Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton were nominated, Sleuth (1972) for which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine were nominated and Amadeus (1984) for which F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were nominated. Of the actors in question, only Schell and Abraham won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the relevant performances.
English actor Edward Fox also appeared in The Dresser (2015), a remake for television. In this version, Fox played Oxenby, whilst in the television version, Fox played Thornton.
Three weeks of filming essential interiors at Pinewood Studios were followed by an intensive schedule of location work. Sites were chosen in London and Britain's northern provincial towns to parallel the background locale of a stage company on the move in wartime, while theatres, railway stations, hospitals, market squares and streets were scrutinized by Yates and production designer Stephen Grimes for authenticity.
Plays by William Shakespeare that are performed, mentioned or referred to in the film include "Othello", "Hamlet", "MacBeth", "Richard III", "King Lear", "As You Like It" and "The Merchant of Venice". Non Shakespearean plays included Sutton Vane's "Outward Bound" and "The Corsican Brothers".
Albert Finney won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actor for this film at the 34th Berlin International Film Festival in 1984.
The production notes for this film state that the film " . . . is an intriguing look behind the scenes at life and relationships in a traditional touring stage company. Against a backdrop of Britain in [WW II] wartime, with the sounds of [Adolph] Hitler's air raids in the background, 'The Dresser' is about Sir, a grandiloquent actor-manager who has given his very soul to his career-often at the expense of those closest to him--and is now cracking under the strain of keeping his company on the road. Pivotal to his existence is [his dresser, hence the title of] The Dresser, Norman, equally passionate about the theatre and dedicated to his master, but wryly aware of Sir's frequently unreasonable demands".
During the years 1962 and 1963, Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Albert Finney in Tom Jones, both were stars in two of director Tony Richardson's most celebrated films, and each movie ignited their fame.
The original British production of "The Dresser" by Ronald Harwood opened at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester on 6th March 1980 and then transferred to the West End's Queen's Theatre in London on 30 April 1980. The production was nominated for the 1980 Olivier Award for Best Play.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for both Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, but failed to win any Oscars.
Both of the picture's lead actors, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, were nominated for Best Actor at the BAFTAS, the Academy Awards, and the Golden Globes, with Courtenay tieing with Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies (1983) at the latter.
Wearing the hat of both producer and director for The Dresser (1983), director Peter Yates assembled a cast of renowned British actors who were distinguished by their work in both the theatre as well as film. Yates, himself a one-time Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate who had directed plays for the London (Royal Court) and New York (American Place Theatre) stage, director Yates was recognized for his ability to communicate on both sides of the camera.
The movie was selected to be the 38th Royal Film Performance and screening at London's Odeon Theatre on 19th March 1984.
The line "227 Lears, and I can't remember the first line " spoken by Albert Finney, is what can be heard at the end of the Manic Street Preachers song P.C.P
One of seven cinema movies made for the Sony owned Columbia Pictures / Tri-Star Pictures studios that were directed by Peter Yates. The films include Krull (1983), Suspect (1987), The Deep (1977), For Pete's Sake (1974), The Run of the Country (1995), The Dresser (1983), and Breaking Away (1979), with the latter three Yates also producing.
One of two feature films directed by Peter Yates that were first released theatrically in 1983. Yates' other cinema movie that year was Krull (1983). Both motion pictures were produced by the Columbia Pictures studio.
Director Peter Yates felt passionately about "The Dresser". Yates said: "If I can make a film which will get more people to go to the theatre, I will feel I have achieved something. I don't think there has ever been a film which shows just a piece of the theatre's tradition and presents it in an attractive and palatable way. I hope with 'The Dresser' we've changed that".
The only film that year nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and not in any Best Motion Picture category at the Golden Globes.
In the film the performance of "King Lear" that Sir (Albert Finney) prepares for and performs is Sir's 227th time playing Lear.
An impeccable cast of leading featured players completes the acting credits, including Lockwood West, Betty Marsden, Sheila Reid, Llewellyn Rees, Donald Eccles, Guy Manning, Kevin Stoney, John Sharp, Kathy Staff, Joe Ritchie, Ann Way, Sydney Arnold, and Anne Blackman (as Anne Hannion).