Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Entertainer (1960)

Director: Tony Richardson                                Writers: John Osborne & Nigel Kneale
Film Score: John Addison                                Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Joan Plowright and Albert Finney

The Entertainer is a British attempt at the kind of realism that was sweeping Europe at the time. The film is a mix of character study, family drama, and generation gap messages that sets the viewer on edge, and never really lets them go. Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and it is exquisite. He plays the role with a loose jointed impishness that is very different for him, a performer who was following in his father’s footsteps, but whose footsteps had already been passed by before he could get started. While the film makes the claim of “introducing” Joan Plowright, she had appeared in a couple of films previous to this. This was, however, Albert Finney’s first film. But where Finney’s part was brief, Plowright is the center of the film, and it’s through her eyes that we see much of what happens to this disintegrating family. And while the generation gap is set up in the London sequence that opens the show, it also makes a pointed appearance not only between Olivier and his children, and an unexpected one between Olivier and his father.

The film begins with Joan Plowright looking at the signs outside the theater where her father, Laurence Olivier is performing. Something of a music hall throwback, one passerby mentions that he can’t be very famous because he hasn’t seen him on television. Plowright works at a community center for disadvantaged kids, and her brother, Albert Finney is going off to fight in Egypt and immediately gets captured by the enemy. Olivier is broke, the show he’s in is failing, and yet he refuses to take life seriously. In fact, he’s out hustling to put a new show together, even though he doesn’t have the money. His angle is to get a young bathing beauty to fall in love with him so he can get her parents to put up the funds so that their daughters can be featured in the show. Meanwhile his second wife, Brenda de Banzie, knows about it and won’t stop talking about his dalliances. But Olivier may be taking this romance seriously. And with de Banzie going a little off the deep end things are beginning to unravel at home. Olivier’s father is disgraced by his son’s behavior, and Plowright finds herself caught in the middle of it all.

Director Tony Richardson has an interesting vision, and relies heavily on Dutch angles to indicate sub-textual conflict in the beginning of the film. This is especially prevalent when Plowright is with her boyfriend, Daniel Massey, in London. But this tapers off when she’s spending time with her family at the beach resort town where they live, and by the time they are seen in the theater together, and he has given up on his idea to go to Africa, the conflict seems resolved. One of the most impressive things about the film is the dialogue, especially within the family. John Osborne had adapted his own play, with the help of Nigel Kneale and it absolutely sings. John Addison’s film score is almost invisible, which is saying a lot. He manages to weave in fifties rock and roll in the London sequences with the music hall orchestra, military marches and the carnival music of the seashore town of Morecambe. For British audiences, the film symbolizes the decay of the Empire and their lowest ebb in the post-World War Two era.

Charles Taylor’s essay in The A List focuses on the character that Olivier plays. His theme song is “Why Should I Care” and, indeed, Archie Rice doesn’t care . . . about anything. He tells his daughter that his eyes are dead inside, that he’s dead inside, that he’s a shell of a man with nothing left. It’s a grim epitaph for a man who’s still alive. Taylor also does a nice job of pointing out the difference between Archie’s dad, played by Roger Livesey, who loved the crowd and whom the crowd loved in return, and Archie who has only contempt for them. The patriotic songs that Archie sings also represent the tired old England that refused to face reality, continuing to thrust themselves into military actions despite reluctance from the younger members of the commonwealth. One of the most telling moments is when Archie’s alone with the young woman he has seduced and rather than feeling grateful or victorious, he doesn’t feel at all. Olivier, had played the role on the stage and, while the music hall may have been dead, the theater and film industry in Britain was just beginning to make an enormous comeback, and The Entertainer was definitely a part of that early success.

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