THE ENTERTAINER is a controversial
film and the only X-rated one in which Laurence Olivier has appeared.
Its representation of the death and decay of vaudeville in the
person of Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) can be seen as an allegory
for the decay of Great Britain in the 1950's.
Set in a seedy coastal resort
in the south of England, the film opens with Archie's daughter
Jean (Joan Plowright) down from London on a visit to her father,
a down-and-out vaudeville performer, her stepmother Phoebe (Brenda
de Banzie), who is losing herself in movies and gin, and her
grandfather Billy Rice (Roger Livesay), a has-been who was once
a famous and talented vaudevillian. A fight with her fiance Graham
(Daniel Massey) has prompted Jean's sudden visit. Jean's stepbrother
Mick (Albert Finney), away at war, had been taken prisoner but
is now being released. This incident sets up an emotional crisis
in the family, but also brings them all together for a few days.
The nightly parties celebrating Mick's release and pending return
turn into ugly, drunken rows, reminiscences of better times,
and bitter reprisals for the current state of affairs.
Each member of the
family has his or her memories and disappointments. Phoebe, who
is bored and frustrated by Archie's continual affairs and escapes
the drudgery of daily life through drink, desires nothing more
than to be treated kindly and live among people who are not destitute
and disillusioned. Billy, the ex-vaudevillian, spends his time
reading the evening paper, smoking cigarettes, sighing for "the
good old days," and suffering the patronage of his son,
Archie. Archie, perhaps, is the most frustrated one of them all.
A mediocre talent living under the shadow of his famous father,
Archie is desperately trying to subsist in a third-rate show
entitled ROCK AND ROLL NEW'D LOOK. In the numerous variety-hall
numbers, we are allowed to see that Archie has no rapport with
his working-class audience. What he desires most is to get up
on stage and make a beautiful, spontaneous, joyful "fuss,"
just like a blues singer he had once seen. He feels that if he
could do something that good just once in his life, it would
make everything else worthwhile. Meanwhile he spends his days
drinking, having affairs, and feeling degraded.
| Archie crumbles
At one of the nightly parties,
one of the most heartrending scenes occurs. Billy, feeling hungry,
heads into the kitchen and eats a piece of cake. Unfortunately,
that cake was one which Phoebe had bought with her scanty savings
for Mick's return, and the verbal abuse and pain which follow
are typical of the entire movie.
With the unexpected death of Mick overseas, Archie crumbles.
This, however, provides the emotional release which enables him
finally to sing the blues, to make a beautiful "fuss."
Mick's death and the approaching threat of the tax man becomes
too much for him, however, and in a desperate attempt to escape,
Archie becomes involved with a young local girl named Tina (Shirley
Anne Field), the second-prize winner in a beauty contest for
which he is master of ceremonies. Thoughts of marriage even enter
Archie's head, but his feelings of hope are shattered when Billy
informs the girl's family of Archie's wife and three children.
As atonement, Billy provides an alternative means of escape.
He agrees to go back into show business, with the hope that his
name will provide the necessary draw to bolster Archie's sagging
show and ward off the creditors. Billy's return proves too much
for him, however, and he dies in the wings without ever making
| Considerable courage
Archie is left to face the tax
man alone. Although he has an opportunity to manage a hotel in
Canada, Archie feels that Canada would be too far removed from
everything he has ever known and chooses to remain an entertainer
and perhaps retain a little honor.
THE ENTERTAINER was first a stage play written by John Osborne,
one of England's "angry young men" and a very anti-Establishment
writer. THE ENTERTAINER was chosen by the English Stage Company
(founded in 1956 and housed in the Royal Court Theatre) as one
of the new plays it wanted to produce. George Devine, a founder
of the company, was a good friend of Olivier, and it was through
him that Olivier approached the idea of appearing in Osborne's
This move required considerable
courage on Olivier's part because it caused a good deal of furor.
Olivier's appearance in a non-Establishment play might have cost
him the approval of his influential and highly placed friends.
Although he was warned of the risk of placing his reputation
in the care of relatively inexperienced talents, however, Olivier
was nevertheless ready to gamble on a dramatic change of direction.
It is Olivier's involvement which gives an air of respectability
to Osborne's play.
In addition to the
disapproval he had to face, Olivier had to counter doubts as
to whether an actor of his power and prestige could convincingly
play a broken-down, third-rate vaudevillian. To dispel these
doubts, Olivier, who already had a keen sense of identification
with the character, frequented the old Collins Music Hall in
Islington, watching the variety show of nudes and rock-and-roll
and quizzing the showgirls. The owners were so honored that they
put up a commemorative plaque.
| A poetic and literate script
At one point, Olivier's wife Vivien
Leigh was considered for the part of Phoebe (she was to wear
a rubber mask to disguise her good looks), but the idea was abandoned,
perhaps because of Olivier's crumbling marriage. In 1961, the
year after the film was released, they were divorced, and Olivier
married Joan Plowright, who plays Jean in the film. De Banzie
was eventually chosen to play Phoebe, reviving her role from
the original stage version.
The film's director, Tony Richardson, also directed the play
THE ENTERTAINER, which opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London
in 1957. A comparatively young, inexperienced, and unknown talent,
Richardson had previously directed the stage version of Osborne's
LOOK BACK IN ANGER and would go on to direct the 1969 stage version
of HAMLET and such films as THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE
RUNNER (1962) and TOM JONES (1963). The latter film again teamed
Richardson with the composer John Addison and with actor Albert
Finney, who had a bit part as young Mick Rice in THE ENTERTAINER.
| Talented young newcomers
Osborne's play was considerably
expanded for the film version. The part of Jean was developed
more, while the addition of the character Tina, created cinematic
allure. The fact that Osborne wrote the script for the film assured
that the film's changes would be in keeping with the original
tone of the play. The result was an incredibly poetic and literate
script which is one of the outstanding features of the movie.
Production values for THE ENTERTAINER
are excellent; meticulous care was taken with every aspect of
the film. The music, cinematography, sets, and costumes all combine
to produce a very real atmosphere of seediness, despair, and
decay. Olivier's makeup, as usual, is impressive. The character
becomes a leering, sad, broken-down old man in a tacky checked
suit and bow tie. Olivier, it was rumored, even went to the extreme
of having his own teeth filed down to achieve the very odd set
of teeth belonging to Archie. The makeup and physical aspect
of Archie was so important to the story that even twenty years
later, a photograph of Olivier in costume for the film is immediately
It is Olivier's acting, however,
which above all dominates and carries the film. It is a widely
held opinion that Archie Rice is one of Olivier's greatest performances
outside of the classics. Olivier himself has named it one of
his favorites. Certainly, he manages to capture the essence of
Archie, making him a credible, understandable, and sympathetic
character, even if a pitiable one. Olivier even captures the
mediocrity of the music-hall numbers, the possibility of talent
numbed by fatigue and disillusionment, and he gives the audience
the real man behind the entertainer, a man frustrated, disappointed,
tired, and broken-hearted.
Standing up under
Olivier's almost overpowering presence is an outstanding supporting
cast. Headed by such well-known British character actors as De
Banzie and Livesey, excellent as Phoebe and Billy, the cast also
boasts an array of talented young newcomers who were to go on
to become stars in their own right, including Plowright, Alan
Bates (as Jean's stepbrother Frank), and Finney.
It was Olivier, nevertheless,
who received most of the attention of the critics. Reaction was
very strong; critics either loved Olivier and hated the film,
or the reverse. Olivier's performance was powerful enough to
earn him an Academy Award nomination, although he lost to Burt
Lancaster for ELMER GANTRY.
A later televised version of THE
ENTERTAINER starring Jack Lemmon as Archie Rice, Ray Bolger as
Billy, Sada Thompson as Phoebe, and Tyne Daly and Michael Christopher
as the children is excellent on its own but does not stand up
to the level of the 1960 film, which is undeniably a classic,
owing to Olivier's monumental performance.
© Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995