Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Entertainer (1960)

The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960) One thing about Laurence Olivier, he was an actor for all genres.  Yes, he was primarily known as a stage and film Shakespearean, probably the greatest, but he also did light comedies, thrillers, period dramas, horror films, the occasional cheese-fest...everything...including the kitchen sink.  Kitchen sink dramas, that is. 

In My Week With Marilyn—the fictionalized telling of the filming of The Prince and the ShowgirlKenneth Branagh's Olivier announces he's done with directing (after his on-set tussles with Monroe and finding out she's incandescent on-screen, anyway, despite his direction) and is going back to the stage to do a John Osbourne piece.  That would be "The Entertainer," the play on which this film is based.  On stage, it vacillated between life on-stage for Archie Rice (Olivier), and at home, where...well, he's never really OFF-stage, a needy vaudevillian with an alcoholic second wife (Brenda De Banzie), three kids (Albert Finney, Alan Bates, and Joan Plowright—who would become the last Lady Olivier), and a slightly more talented, but no more wiser live-in Da (Roger Livesey).

For now, Archie is scraping by, as star/producer of a boardwalk diversion at a seaside holiday camp, in the perfect venue—an old, faded theater, where the air is as stale as his material.  His day is only vital in the afternoons and early evenings in the bustling chaos of on-stage and backstage.  The rest is the drummest of hums—wife in her cups, son off to war in the Suez, youngest son helping Dad in the dive, and daughter teaches art to a bunch of barely interested teddy-boys and girls.  She goes to the seaside, seeking out Father, looking for some form of stability before settling into a perfunctory marriage.

She should have gone somewhere else.  Archie is only accessible on-stage, and when off, he's trying to hustle another season, another venue, another donor, another prospective starlet.  Life just isn't good enough for him if a limelight isn't on him and the money's starting to run out to pay the electric bill. Much was made of the play as a comment for the fading empiricism of Great Britain, as personified by the propped-up jolly-good Archie, for whom the show must go on, despite not having any juice in it for years, surviving with a heavy layer of rouge and grease-paint to give the long-distance impression of vitality and youth, blithely ignoring the march of time and pasting it over with the false grin of performance, no matter how desperate it may come across.

Richardson's film opens the play up, puts instance on Archie's transgressions on-screen instead of just being talked about and blubbered over, and Olivier sticks out like a sore thumb—rightly so—apart from the rest of the cast.  Where Livesey is old-school formal and the kids are new-broom casual, Olivier sticks to his guns with a theatrical performance which feels appropriately, desperately false, which benefits the film while also making the character of Archie a complete outsider, a role he no doubt relishes.  There's only one star in this "revue," everybody else is a bit player.

For Olivier, it must have fulfilled some need—to slum, maybe, or to reach out to the new material being generated by Osbourne, Richardson and others in the new school of British rebellion.  Maybe, after his long string of kings, princes and noblemen, he wanted to explore the has-been's and ignoble men, to cultivate portraits of characters of a more stratified than rarefied stripe.  There's also an element that Olivier might have been familiar with—the performer's ennui, bordering on contempt for his audience.  At this stage in his career, Archie is performing for himself—the money's not great, the material stale, and any creative collaboration is non-existent—the most intimate relationship he has is with his make-up mirror and even that is betraying him.  Olivier is not above showing bitterness—he was particularly adept at tartly spitting out the ironic put-down in the guise of civility.  And he was acknowledging his age (he was a very old Hamlet in his film of it) and the potential for failure, by portraying it, challenging it, mocking it, waving a red cape at it, maybe exorcising it.  It was a brave interesting role for Britain's leading thespian.

Olivier as Archie Rice: "The Roar of the Greasepaint"

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