Directed By: Tony Richardson
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey
Tag line: "As the applause grew fainter ... As the spotlight grew dimmer ... His women were younger!"
Trivia: Roger Livesey plays Laurence Olivier's father in this film, yet was less than one year older than Olivier in real-life
“The show must go on”. It’s an adage as old as show business itself, yet for Archie Rice, the lead character in the 1960 film The Entertainer, it’s more than a motto. For him, being on-stage is synonymous with being alive. It’s when he steps behind the curtain and faces reality that Archie Rice gets himself into trouble.
Archie (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, reprising the role he made famous on-stage) is a comic well past his prime, telling stale jokes in a dilapidated Lancashire theater to audiences that get smaller by the day. Still, Archie remains optimistic, and is busy trying to put together a new show he’s convinced will be a smash hit. His long-suffering wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) is at her wit’s end; not only is she afraid that Archie, already up to his ears in debt, will end up in jail, but the couple’s son Mick (Albert Finney), a soldier in the army, has just been taken prisoner while fighting in the Suez. Archie’s father, Billy (Roger Livesey), who lives with them in their tiny apartment, was himself a well-known performer in his day, and Archie’s and Phoebe’s other son Frank (Alan Bates) manages things behind-the-scenes for his father, doing his best to ensure the shows, however pitiful, run as smoothly as they possibly can.
Into this domesticated nightmare comes Jean (Joan Plowright), Archie’s daughter from a previous marriage. Leaving her fiance Graham (Daniel Massey) behind in London, Jean travels to Lancashire to spend a weekend with the family, only to discover her father, a notorious womanizer, has cooked up a scheme that threatens to tear their world apart. While serving as emcee for a local beauty pageant, Archie meets, and then seduces the runner-up, 20-year-old beauty Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field), by promising to make her the headliner of his next production. He then cozies up to Tina’s well-to-do parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge) in the hope they will finance their daughter’s big debut. Archie is so keen on the idea that he actually considers divorcing Phoebe so he can marry the much younger Tina! Jean, the only member of the Rice family who knows what’s going on, tries desperately to talk her father out of it, but for Archie, there’s more than love involved; this move could finally make him a star, something that has eluded him his entire life.
Will Archie actually go through with his devious plan, or will fate somehow intervene?
Produced during the early days of the British New Wave, The Entertainer was shot (for the most part) on-location, bringing a sense of realism to many of its scenes (the beauty pageant is set entirely outdoors, and later in the film, Jean and Archie enjoy a picnic while perched on a hill that overlooks a seaside amusement pier). The Entertainer also marked the screen debuts of Albert Finney (he has one brief scene early on), Alan Bates, and Joan Plowright (who, a year later, would become Mrs. Laurence Olivier); and was only the second feature film directed by Tony Richardson (the first being Look Back in Anger, released a year earlier). In addition, Brenda de Banzie delivers a searing performance as Archie’s mostly inebriated, yet dutiful wife Phoebe, while Roger Livesey is superb as Billy, Archie’s lovable father who, back in the day, achieved a level of stardom that his son has never known.
But The Entertainer is Archie Rice’s story, and contains what is, hands down, one of Sir Laurence’s all-time best performances. Even when he isn’t standing in front of a microphone, Olivier’s Archie is always “on”, telling jokes to his family, his friends at the pub, and pretty much anyone who will listen to him. Life does sometimes throw off his timing, like when he receives the telegram informing him that Mick was taken prisoner, but Archie always manages to put his troubles aside, even the ones that he himself creates (having already declared bankruptcy, Archie must now rely on Phoebe to sign the checks that they don’t have the money to cover). Throughout The Entertainer, Archie Leach is a cad of the highest order, a womanizer and a beggar who puts his own needs, his own ambitions, ahead of everybody else’s. And yet he’s so damn charismatic that you can’t help but like the guy; whether belting out his signature tune “Why Should I Care?” or cracking jokes that were old twenty years ago, Archie always manages to convince those around him that he’s as adorable in real life as he is on stage. The truth, however, is that Archie Rice is going down for the count, and uses humor to forget his worries. We get the feeling throughout the movie that if Archie ever stopped laughing, he’d probably break down and cry.
As engrossing as it is tragic, The Entertainer is an exceptional motion picture, featuring a world-class actor at the top of his game.