Monday 20 July 2009

The Entertainer (1960)

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Joan Plowright, Roger Livesey, Albert Finney and Alan Bates

Archie Rice, the entertainer of the title, is TV and radio's sauciest comic, or at least so the signs say outside the Alhambra. The passers by don't seem to have heard of him. I'm sure they'd have heard of Sir Laurence Olivier though, who plays him in this adaptation of John Osborne's play, as adapted by Osborne himself with Nigel Kneale. We don't see Archie Rice for a while, working our way through his family instead.

There's granddad, Billy Rice, the head of the family, who Roger Livesey plays in a similar way to how he played Colonel Blimp. He's not very proud of his son, given that he he's just about made it by for years and haves to try harder every single year. Archie's daughter Jean is more proud of him though she doesn't know why he carries on. She's played by Joan Plowright who was 31 to Olivier's 53, though they were married a year later in real life and remained so until his death in 1989. Jean tries to teach lower class kids, something her boyfriend Graham looks down upon.

He looks down on her family too, though he's courteous enough to her brother Mick who's in the forces and leaving for Africa. Maybe it's because he's played by Albert Finney, who disappears from our film surprisingly early. There's also Jean's other brother Frank, in the form of Alan Bates, who works backstage for his dad on his shows. And then, with only Brenda De Banzie as his beleaguered and naysaying wife Phoebe left for us to meet, we finally see Archie, on stage at the Bradford Alhambra, where I saw Metallica and Anthrax and Tangerine Dream, though here it's doubling for some music hall in Morecambe.

They weren't doing what Archie Rice is doing, needless to say. He's an old school vaudeville performer who tells jokes, tap dances and sings saucy songs. He's good at what he does but he's hardly a success. He works hard, he never quits and he has a knack of making anyone he meets laugh. However he's more and more out of date as time goes by and he's fading as a star. Those passers by don't know who he is, remember? Rice is finding it harder and harder to keep his shows together because nobody wants to put them on any more and he can't find the money to pay his cast.

He has just as much trouble trying to keep his family going, not just because of the lack of income but because he's always chasing after another young piece of skirt. And the older he gets, the younger the skirt. Here he pulls the runner up in the Miss England bathing beauties competition that he ends up hosting, presumably for purely carnal reasons but soon to milk her father out of enough money to finance his next show, with pure optimism that it's even going to happen. Where it's all going to end up is open to question, but he plans to marry this young Miss England runner up, even though he's already married.

I really can't say I enjoyed this film, but I don't think that was the point. In keeping with much of kitchen sink drama era, it's a down to earth picture of real people living and working with all the trials and tribulations that real life has to offer. We can like these characters or not but we can't call them anything special and much of the attraction is in way the Rice family bicker, especially the elder generations, but I can watch bickering a lot closer to home. The only advantage this has is that I can hit pause.

What this film has that kept me fascinated is the acting. While I couldn't care much for the characters, the actors playing them were utterly spot on. Olivier especially is awesome here, unsurprisingly as he's Laurence Olivier, but also because Osborne had written the play specifically for him at his request and he'd originated the role of Archie Rice at the Royal Court. He turned down a fortune from Hollywood to do this, so it must have meant something to him. He was paid the equivalent of $126 a week for the part, as against the quarter of a million bucks that Hollywood had offered him for a single film.

He did it because it's a treat of a part for an actor's actor and he know that absolutely. His performance is a textbook on the art of timing that any budding actor should pay close attention to. Everything he does is a front but that front does precisely what it needs to do at any point in time; and what makes it such genius is we see through it to the real Archie while believing utterly that everyone else in the film can't see anything but front. Olivier was Oscar nominated here, which is utterly appropriate. It took Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry to beat him.

And yet he's far from alone at this level of talent. Joan Plowright is world weary beyond her years; no wonder he fell for her. Brenda De Banzie reprised her role on stage also and so managed to instil a huge depth into it. Roger Livesey was only a year older than Olivier but is utterly believable as his father. Albert Finney has far too little to do and Alan Bates doesn't get too much more, but they're as good as their names suggest. Shirley Anne Field, who plays the bathing beauty went on to be Finney's girl in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the same year. There's also Miriam Karlin a year before The Rag Trade and of all people Thora Hird, unlike anything you'd expect if you've only seen her later.

And underpinning everything is John Osborne's writing, which shines and commands respect, even if we aren't entertained. It's clever stuff, well written and well, why not. The angry young men of English literature, whether novelists or playwrights or screenwriters or any combination of the three, wanted to do something very specific and they succeeded. I can respect them for what they did and I can feel privileged for watching many performances like Olivier's here; Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger and Richard Harris in This Sporting Life spring very much to mind. But do I really want to watch them again? A marathon of kitchen sink dramas would probably lead to suicide.

If I'm brutally honest, this one left me a little drier than the others. I cared a little less. I felt less drained, less impacted and, frankly, less entertained. It was solid and the acting was top notch, but it's fading already and the end credits have only just finished running. I'm going to look back at this one with a lot less admiration as a film than other Tony Richardson fims. I relished The Loved One far more. Tom Jones entertained me more. Look Back in Anger gave me far more of a gut punch. This one's going to feel like an also ran in that company, Olivier notwithstanding.

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