One of the greatest casts ever assembled electrifies The Entertainer, John Osborne’s sturdy play that Osborne and Nigel Kneale adapted and Tony Richardson directed starkly, if crudely and disjointedly. (Richardson would make only one other film even half as good: A Delicate Balance, 1973, from Edward Albee’s play.) Laurence Olivier is staggering re-creating his stage role as debt-drowning, seedy music hall singing comic Archie Rice, a throwback to earlier times; Roger Livesey, deeply affecting, plays Rice’s father, Billy, Joan Plowright Rice’s daughter, Jean, Albert Finney and Alan Bates his sons, Brenda de Banzie his second wife, Phoebe, and Daniel Massey, Shirley Anne Field and Thora Hird in other roles.
The intended metaphor, however well it may have worked onstage, doesn’t (and perhaps cannot) transfer to the screen. Olivier is too agonizingly real, despite the restraint and distance of Richardson’s camera in the vast majority of shots, for the intention to hold; Olivier’s urgent, tremendous performance overwhelms the abstraction of British depression and decline, including the evaporation of Empire. The irony that such a lowly, selfish, dead-eyed sort as Archie represents all this is lost. On the other hand, with that dimension excised, the characters still fascinate as themselves, and in particular the father-son duo of Billy and Archie, one blubberingly sentimental and the other cold and manipulative, both of them desperate, rip the heart out. That Livesey once upon a time was cinema’s Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1944) causes the film to shimmer with a vestige of Osborne’s larger intent.
There’s no getting around another point of fascination: despite the years between them, the Olivier-Plowright offstage romantic pairing that helped end one of the most widely publicized extramarital affairs and subsequent marriages of the twentieth century.
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