Nationality: Scottish. Born: Glasgow, 1947. Education: Studied at National Film School, Beaconsfield, Bucks., for three months, 1971. Family: One son, one daughter. Career: Left school at age sixteen and worked for documentary filmmaker Stanley Russell; set up Tree Films with Charles Gormley, 1972; producer of documentaries, 1970s; began working with Glasgow Youth Theatre, 1977; directed first feature, That Sinking Feeling , 1979. Awards: British Academy Award for Best Screenplay, for Gregory's Girl , 1981; BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay, 1983; Honorary Doctorate, University of Glasgow, 1983.
That Sinking Feeling
Comfort and Joy
Housekeeping ( Sylvie's Ark )
Gregory's Two Girls
Interview in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1981.
"A Suitable Job for a Scot," an interview with J. Brown, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1983.
Interview with A. Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), August 1984.
"The Forsyth Saga," an interview with E. Stein, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1984.
Interview with Graham Fuller, in Listener (London), 19 November 1987.
Interview in Films and Filming (London), December 1987.
Interview with L. Tanner, in Films in Review (New York), February 1988.
"Being Human," an interview with Allan Hunter, in Sight and Sound (London), August 1994.
Park, James, Learning to Dream: The New British Cinema , London, 1985.
Roddick, Nick, and Chris Auty, British Cinema Now , London, 1985.
Walker, Alexander, National Heroes: British Cinema in the '70s and '80s , London, 1985.
Dick, Eddie, editor, From Limelight to Satellite: A Scottish Film Book , London, 1990.
Hardy, Forsyth, Scotland in Film , Edinburgh, 1990.
Films Illustrated (London), August 1981.
Falk, Quentin, "Local Heroes," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1982.
Films (London), July 1983.
Nave, B., "Humour ecossais: Local Hero ," in Jeune Cinema (Paris), April 1984.
Malcomson, S.L., "Modernism Comes to the Cabbage Patch," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1985.
Pym, John, " Housekeeping ," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1987–88.
Norman, Barry, "Heroic Effort," in Radio Times (London), 1 December 1990.
Elley, Derek, in Variety (New York), 30 August 1999.
* * *
For a while during the early 1980s Scottish cinema was virtually synonymous with Bill Forsyth. Today his work remains among the most original and distinctive to have emerged not only from Scotland but from Britain as a whole. The Forsyth oeuvre is rooted in a gentle and extremely charming offbeat view of the world which has affinities with a variety of comic traditions including Ealing comedy, Frank Capra, Jacques Tati, and Ermanno Olmi ( Il Posto is practically a blueprint in tone and feel of Gregory's Girl ), but which maintains its own individuality and character. Forsyth's choice of comedy as his mode of expression was partly dictated by the fact that his first two films were made on tiny budgets. In characteristically modest fashion he regarded comedy as more appropriate, being less self-indulgent and more fun to do for everyone involved. Crucially, the comic character of these films gave them a vitality which helped them transcend their budgetary limitations and, in the case of Gregory's Girl , find a sizable audience outside Scotland. Forsyth's charm lies in his attention to detail, particularly the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of his characters, which are conveyed equally effectively through both image and dialogue. These characters are often marginalised individuals caught up in circumstances they are ill equipped to deal with. Forsyth finds a great deal of humour in their predicaments but he does so in a wry and generous manner which is never at the expense of the characters. Instead, his approach amounts to a celebration of the human spirit with all its foibles and shortcomings.
Forsyth's acute perception of human behaviour gives his films a depth which transcends their initial charm as quirky comedies. Gregory's Girl , for example, is populated by dreamers lost in their various obsessions. The film centre is the first stirrings of sexuality in rather awkward male adolescents. Gregory is obsessed with the enigmatic and ultimately unobtainable Dorothy (a situation repeated in Local Hero with the unrequited love that Danny and McIntyre feel for Marina and Stella, respectively). But Forsyth also uncovers a variety of obsessions, ranging from a fascination with numbers to useless facts and cookery, that serve as expressions of the problems and confusions associated with adolescence; these obsession are presented as, in essence, a redirection of sexual energy. Although equally obsessed with boys, the girls in the film are more knowing and sophisticated (Gregory constantly seeks advice on matters of the heart from his eleven-year-old sister) and wield greater control over their own destinies—Dorothy overcomes the sexist opposition of the coach to earn a place in the football team, while Susan ingeniously uses her friends to divert Gregory's romantic attentions away from Dorothy and toward herself. Forsyth obviously has a great empathy with the female point of view, and it is no coincidence that Housekeeping , his most mature and accomplished work, concentrates totally on the relationship between two young girls and their rather eccentric aunt.
Despite the generally upbeat ambience, Forsyth's cinema has its darker side. There are poignant moments of irony in That Sinking Feeling , a film which, despite its quirkiness and innocence, features a group of teenagers attempting to cope with the problems of unemployment. The film is set against a bleak and crumbling urban landscape. Local Hero has a rather subdued ending, which compensates for the cozy and contrived resolution reached between beachcomber Ben Knox and Happer the oil tycoon; McIntyre resumes a life in Texas that he has come to regard as shallow and meaningless.
Comfort and Joy is darker than its predecessors not only in theme but in visual style. It concentrates on one solitary character, charting his development from morbid introspection (after his girlfriend leaves him at Christmas) to fascination with the absurdities of the world around him. Despite Forsyth's intention to make a gloomier film, Comfort and Joy appears rather whimsical when compared to the brutality of the real Glasgow "Ice Cream Wars" which occurred at about the same time.
But Forsyth's most serious effort by far is Housekeeping , his first adaptation and the first film that he shot outside Scotland. In exploring the dilemma of whether to conform to social expectations or opt out altogether, it successfully mixes very real moments of tragedy and grief (it is the only Bill Forsyth film to provoke real anxiety and even tears) with lighter and more familiar Forsythian observations and character traits. Housekeeping marks a major development in Forsyth's career, demonstrating a greater emotional complexity and directorial assuredness. It opens out his cinema from its provincial Scottish roots while retaining the charm and warmth of his earlier work and suggests that we may not yet have seen the best of this major filmmaking talent.
Since Housekeeping , though, Forsyth has not made any films that rival the work of his early career. Breaking In , a comedy which charts the relationship between a young thief (Casey Siemaszko) and his aging mentor (Burt Reynolds), was a dud. Being Human is an oddity—and a box office disaster—featuring Robin Williams as five separate characters from different eras of history, each of whom are laboring to attain satisfaction in their lives. Being Human is an adventuresome and well-intentioned project, to be sure. But the result is maddeningly uneven, and one hopes that Forsyth will be able to recapture the spirit of his first features.
—Duncan J. Petrie, updated by Rob Edelman