Tom Courtenay did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying William 'Billy' Terrence Fisher in Billy Liar.
Tom Courtenay plays the protagonist in this film which is of the Kitchen sink drama genre. This one though sort of questions the genre a bit in that it is very much a comedy drama and not really in the way Alfie was either. When Alfie went serious it stayed rather serious but Billy Liar never stops with his more absurdest moments. Courtenay's performance is a little different as well even though like Alfie as well as Archie Rice irresponsibility is a major facet of his character. His irresponsibility comes out in a rather different fashion though and Courtenay portrays a very different leading character here.
The irresponsibility of Billy is shown through his constant fantasies that play out in his head that usual involve himself in some create place of power or something that makes him seem far more important than he is. Courtenay infuses this whole side of his performance with a certain insanity. In the fantasy scenes Courtenay has an incredible glee that has above all a boyish childish quality. It actually has a bit of a disconcerting aspect to it considering this behavior is coming from a man, and Courtenay actually does this the right way. It is clear that Billy is enjoying himself and perhaps we can enjoy it with it, but Courtenay is not afraid to show that there is definitely something off about it all.
The fantasy scenes are Billy at his most extreme but Courtenay does tone it down considerably when Billy is no longer around. Courtenay still gives Billy various shades in style depending who exactly he is with and when he is with them. When he is with less serious circumstances Courtenay portrays him as a bit of a seemingly harmless joker. He is far less intense in these moments than he is in the fantasy but Courtenay still suggests the irresponsibility although in a less extreme fashion for Billy. He makes him a bit of charmer although perhaps one who puts it on a little thick at times a little too thick for his own good. Courtenay does not go overboard in his portrayal rather he does well to accentuate Billy's defining feature.
The film is not called Billy Liar for no reason and the consistent thing about Billy is his propensity for telling lies big and small over the course of the film. He never really stops lying but he never seems exactly the devious fellow one would think he would considering how much lying he does. Courtenay's performance works especially well because of the way he avoids this in Billy. The reason is that his lying is almost just that of a second nature. Courtenay has no hesitations or stops in his performance and portrays his lying with that same sort of happiness that he expresses with his fantasies. His portrayal never makes Billy lying seem purposeful even when though it is, but rather it as something that Billy just has to do to be able to get by in the way he does.
Throughout the film Billy's lies catch up with them and Courtenay is very effective in the way he mixes subtly with his broader portrayal of Billy as the liar. As a liar Courtenay portrays him as a man not to afraid to do anything and even enjoys it a bit, but when called upon it he suggests something different right under his skin. Courtenay is excellent the way he plays up and down with the part in any of the scenes where he is called on his lies whether it is when his boss is calling on him for his slight embezzlement or when his two fiancees start suspecting something about Billy. Courtenay has Billy try to keep it up with the same confidence in the demeanor, but within this there is a weakness about Billy that pains him truly as he is forced to face reality which he hates to do.
Tom Courtenay's best moments though come when Billy is faced with the harshest realities in life and he has no lies to fall onto. Courtenay in glimpses suggests a very different man and certainly a far more mature one. His smirk leaves him as do the constant lies and jokes he likes to tell. He instead is left as a fairly sad unimposing soul who has trouble even listening to his parents when they are telling him how things really are. It is striking to see the liar brought to the truth as Courtenay still shows this to be the liar but with all of defenses gone. With no lies left Billy is shown to be just a sad young man without a single proper direction to go and Courtenay is brilliant quite powerful in revealing just how Billy is deep down.
Tom Courtenay's characterization of Billy is excellent in his creation of the onion that is Billy revealing the various layers of him from his surface fantasies to his deep insecurities. Courtenay never allows his performance to be a single way here and it is quite interesting to see how he is able to be an entertaining liar yet still shows that the lies come from a very real personal problems in the man. Courtenay makes Billy a complex character and is convincing in every facet of the role. Billy doesn't have a direct path in the film bouncing back and forth in terms of his maturity, and in the end it is open to interpretations what exact path he has chosen. Courtenay performance allows this end to be both compelling as well as fitting to his character.