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While films have tended to portray the entertainment industry as a dream factory where lowly people become great, The Entertainer (1960) is a gritty and dark portrait of the seedy side of the stage in playwright John Osborne's comparison of a crumbling Britain to the failing fortunes of a third-rate musical theater performer.
Jean Rice (Joan Plowright), who is involved in a rocky relationship with her fiancé in London, travels to a grimy seaside town (Morecambe, a once popular resort, where director Tony Richardson's parents lived) to see her family. There she observes her struggling father, Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) a vaudeville entertainer performing to lukewarm effect and thin crowds in fleapit music hall revues alongside grumpy dancing girls. The selfish and deceitful Archie is having an especially hard run, though he has spent a lifetime juggling financial problems and lady troubles.
Archie's personal problems are compounded by a son Mick (Albert Finney) who has gone off to battle in Egypt and a strained home life in the cramped apartment where he lives with his highly regarded, retired entertainer father Billy (Roger Livesey) and his alcoholic wife Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie), who nags him relentlessly about his failures. Archie lies and finesses to escape from his woes and has recently fallen for the charms of a young beauty queen.
In the midst of Jean's visit, the family learns that Mick has been taken prisoner in Egypt and they wait on pins and needles for news of his release, even as Archie attempts to mount a lavish production on credit and family tensions rise to a boil.
A grim, gritty reflection of the economic struggles and desperation of British life, The Entertainer was part of a larger "Angry Young Man" film movement whose cynicism defined postwar Britain. Tony Richardson (and fellow traveler, playwright John Osborne) typified this cinematic movement's trend for realism with an insistence on shooting on-location with natural sound and light. "I couldn't have articulated it, having never been introspective," recalls Richardson in his memoir The Long-Distance Runner but "The Entertainer was a key moment in my development, because all the ideas and convictions I was to work with afterward were crystallized in its making."
Olivier, who first played Archie on the London stage, won an Academy Award nomination for his remarkable impersonation of a selfish, deceitful show-biz has-been, though he lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry (1960).
The role of Archie was a dark and realistic break from the more romantic roles Olivier had specialized in previously. But Olivier later claimed that the conniving Archie was more true to his own character and personality. "I have an affinity with Archie Rice. It's what I really am. I'm not like Hamlet," he claimed. Or as Tony Richardson observed of Olivier's enthusiasm for the project, "The character of Archie Rice, which tapped into aspects of Larry's personality that he'd never used before, immediately obsessed him. He accepted the play before it was even finished."
Once production of the play began, Richardson saw Olivier's suitability to the script: "His understanding of Archie was so complete that he could make anything work. He infected everyone with his enthusiasm."
Olivier was masterful in the role, especially in the climactic moment in the play where Archie imitates the only time he witnessed performance greatness in the guise of blues singer Bessie Smith. When Olivier finally performed his rendition of Smith's onstage greatness for the first time in a rehearsal, Richardson and the rest of the cast were blown away. "It was the most thrilling single moment I've ever had in the theatre," Richardson remembered.
The role Olivier originated in 1957 and played so superbly onstage to sellout crowds in London and New York was more than just a character on stage. As Richardson noted, Archie was, "the embodiment of a national mood...Archie was the future, the decline, the sourness, the ashes of old glory, where Britain was heading." Olivier acknowledged in his autobiography that the dramatic departure playing the role of Archie offered him was also a chance to provoke a break in his disintegrating marriage to actress Vivien Leigh.
Olivier's enthusiasm for the project manifested itself in less beguiling ways too. Despite every indication that Vivien Leigh playing a haggard and unlovely Phoebe would work too much against type, Olivier initially proposed the beautiful Leigh for the role.
While Olivier was contemplating a divorce from Leigh, The Entertainer provided the opportunity to find her replacement. A year after the film wrapped Joan Plowright would become Olivier's wife and eventually bear him three children. Olivier claimed in his autobiography, to have fallen for Plowright playing Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife on the British stage, but Richardson says it was in The Entertainer "that they drifted together."
In 1976, The Entertainer was remade for television, starring Jack Lemmon as Archie, though Laurence Olivier's interpretation of the role proved very difficult to surpass. Critics, however, tended to either love or hate the film. And despite a remarkable performance, Olivier ultimately never achieved the stunning success and adoration with the cinematic version that he had enjoyed with the play.
Director: Tony Richardson
Producer: Harry Saltzman
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale and John Osborne, from a play by John Osborne
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Production Design: Ralph Brinton and Ted Marshall
Music: John Addison
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Archie Rice), Brenda De Banzie (Phoebe Rice), Joan Plowright (Jean Rice), Roger Livesey (Billy Rice), Alan Bates (Frank Rice), Daniel Massey (Graham), Albert Finney (Mick Rice).
by Felicia Feaster