Entertainer, The (1960)

Entertainer, The (1960)

“As Phoebe always says, ‘Better to be a has-been than a never-was.'”

An aging vaudeville star (Laurence Olivier) living off the charity of his wife (Brenda de Banzie) and elderly father (Roger Livesey) — and emotionally supported by his stagehand son (Alan Bates) and do-gooding daughter (Joan Plowright) — romances a young beauty pageant contestant (Shirley Anne Field) while dreaming about his next big hit, evading taxmen, and avoiding news of his son Mick (Albert Finney) fighting in the Suez Crisis.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Alan Bates Films
  • Albert Finney Films
  • Has-Beens
  • Laurence Olivier Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Roger Livesey Films
  • Shirley Anne Field Films
  • Tony Richardson Films
  • Vaudeville and Burlesque

Following his cinematic directorial debut Look Back in Anger (1959) (based on a play by John Osborne), Tony Richardson adapted Osborne’s next play, written with Laurence Olivier in mind. It’s difficult to say which of these two films/plays is more depressing — though I give my vote to The Entertainer, which is only 103 minutes long but feels twice that given its relentlessly bleak trajectory. That’s not to say the film isn’t well-made, because it is — but watching a nice young woman like Plowright postpone her engagement to a solid guy (Daniel Massey) in order to stick around and support her deeply dysfunctional family is a rough way to start the storyline off.

Meanwhile, as soon as we learn more about both Archie Rice (Olivier) and his troubled wife Phoebe (de Banzie), we know we’re in for a rocky ride, given that Archie doesn’t want to face the fact of his financial troubles, and Phoebe is perpetually on her last nerve about it.

Making matters worse, Archie is a chronic womanizer who somehow manages to woo a pretty young beauty pageant contestant through an aspirational lie about featuring her in his upcoming (as of yet unfunded) production:

… not fully realizing what his affair will do to his wife, whose brother in Canada is willing to help pay their bills and get them started on a new life if only Archie were open to this option. Bosley Crowther describes the overall scenario perfectly, referring to the film (which he nonetheless seems to recommend) as “a devastating picture of a hollow, hypocritical heel and of the pitiful people around him who are drowned in his grubby vanity.”

Precisely. Is there anything worse than a once-well-known performer past his prime who refuses to step down from his perch, and drags everyone else along with him on his descent? Well, clearly there are many things worse — but this film makes a good argument on behalf of Archie as a top Pathetic Loser of cinema. Because he’s played by Olivier (giving a marvelous performance), we want very much to seek empathy with him:

… but frankly, it’s hard. Archie doesn’t necessarily mean to be cruel, but his own needs are so dominant that he can’t or won’t stop to reflect on what he’s doing to others. To that end, the film is littered with distressing and/or depressing scenes, including a beauty pageant in which several contestants are described matter-of-factly as having “no hobbies” (ouch):

… Archie’s employees hovering in the background to eavesdrop while he hears bad news on the telephone (they know this means their own paychecks will be further delayed, but are perhaps experiencing schadenfreude as well):

… de Banzie’s multiple hysterical breakdowns:

… and the terrible culminating scenes with Livesey (about which I won’t say more at risk of spoiling). With that said, as with other films of the British New Wave, Richardson makes excellent use of authentic locales, very much bringing the seaside world of low-brow entertainment to life:

… and Oswald Morris’s cinematography throughout is stellar. Both Alan Bates:

… and Albert Finney (appearing only in an early sequence):

… made their cinematic debuts in this film, and it’s also notable for bringing together Olivier and Plowright romantically (they went on to marry and have three kids). However, it’s hard to recommend a film that’s such a consistently bleak downer — so consider yourself forewarned.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Brenda de Banzie as Phoebe Rice
  • Fine use of location shooting
  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one time look simply for its historical relevance, as well as Olivier’s stand-out performance.


One thought on “Entertainer, The (1960)

  1. Not must-see.

    “… but frankly, it’s hard. ” That sums it up completely. Olivier is pretty much the whole movie here – and who gives a fuck about this annoyingly self-serving a-hole?

    A comparison can be drawn between Olivier’s character and Trevor Howard’s in ‘Outcast of the Islands’ – except that the latter film isn’t populated with people who are sucked in and pulled down as a result. Watching Olivier drain everything he touches is simply exhausting – and to what end? Nothing of substance.

    Yes, the production is well-made… and a dismal viewing experience.

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