Archie Rice, a third rate English music hall performer in post-war Britain, is desperately trying to get financial backing for one more show which he feels certain will finally lift him out of debt. His personal life intrudes as he pursues a much younger woman whose parents may be able to give him the funds for his project, despite his being married to the long suffering Phoebe. When his girlfriend’s parents discover Archie’s marriage, his backing falls through. At the same time, one of his sons, Mick, who is in the British Army, is sent to Egypt during the Suez crisis of 1956, and is taken prisoner. Taking pity on Archie, his father, Billie Rice, a one time star on the music hall circuit, agrees to perform with him to save his show. However, Archie can’t rise above his problems or his past, and after successive failures, he is forced to confront the choice of leaving England for Canada or face jail for income tax evasion.
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John Osborne, the playwright who wrote “The Entertainer”, was one of the “angry young men” of Britain’s post-war period and he was a seminal writer in the new “kitchen sink” realism of 1950’s British theatre. The desire here was to break thoroughly with the drawing room drama of the pre-war era, where the middle and upper classes were deemed the only strata of British society whose lives were worth examining. If working class problems were thought about at all, it was almost always through the perspective of the upper classes. Writers like Osborne, who also wrote “Look Back in Anger”, Joe Orton and Arnold Wesker, were determined to show working class lives in their actual context. At the same time, Osborne wanted to go further than “Look Back in Anger”, and offer a stinging political critique of a crumbling British Empire abroad and a socially stagnant society at home. “The Entertainer”, first produced on the London stage in 1957, was his ambitious attempt to combine all of this commentary into one searing dramatic experience.
It is Olivier’s brilliance as a performer, his energy and charisma, as well as his identification with the rather pathetic figure of Archie Rice that gives, what otherwise might be a relentlessly pessimistic film, it’s kick. That is the great irony of watching “The Entertainer” nearly a half century after its initial release. The politics of the piece are no longer urgent. What lives on is Olivier’s great performance as a decadent, reptilian music hall trouper. Olivier, who spent most of his adult life on the stage, understood completely the amoral soullessness of a certain kind of show business. It’s hard to see how this performance would not have been an influence on Joel Grey in his great turn as the corrupt emcee in “Cabaret”. Both performances have the same chilling quality.
Tony Richardson, directed the stage version of “The Entertainer”, and, as a member of the British “New Wave”, included a number the leading lights of a generation of new actors, who would have go on to have major careers in the 60s. Joan Plowright, who would soon become the third Mrs. Olivier, plays Archie’s daughter, Jean, who is meant to be the social conscience of the film. Plowright gives her a welcome down to earth quality while mainly having to offer a quiet commentary on Archie’s behaviour. If you blink you will miss Albert Finney, who has only one scene as Archie’s son, Mick Rice. Alan Bates, who plays the second son, Frank, gives solid support and plays well off Olivier.
The older actors, Brenda de Banzie as the panicked, emotionally grasping Phoebe Rice and Roger Livesey as Archie’s dignified father, Billy, are allowed to shine in their respective roles.
Richardson shot entirely on location in Morecambe, England, which was then a busy, seaside resort. The crisp, almost documentary, black and white photography gives the film added energy.
As a record of a great performance and an interesting cultural moment in British theatre and film history, “The Entertainer” is still very much worth the viewer’s time.