July 16, 2007
The Entertainer, 1960
On the surface, The Entertainer is something of a cross between Charles Chaplin's late period film, Limelight in its evocation of an aging, down and out vaudevillian performer seeking to recapture the glory days of his professional career by putting on one last career-defining show, and a prefiguration of Xavier Giannoli's understatedly rendered The Singer in its nuanced portrait of a struggling, yet uncompromising artist who continues to persevere in his dying, old-fashioned vocation in an age of karaoke and discotheques. But beyond creating a complex character study of aging and obsolescence, filmmaker Tony Richardson and writer (and Woodfall Film Production co-founder) John Osborne present a bracing, uncompromising, and provocative portrait of contemporary British society through the unlikely, archetypal struggling entertainer, Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) - a self-absorbed, second rate performer, consummate self-promoter, and erstwhile television and radio personality (a dubious billing that several passersby are quick to question at the beginning of the film) whose monomaniacal (and perhaps, quixotic) quest to perform an ambitious production at the largest theater in the seaside town of Morecombe plays out against a disintegrating family life that has been wracked by numerous infidelities, a deteriorating marriage, a son, Mick's (Albert Finney) dangerous deployment to Egypt at a time of increasing crisis in the Middle East, and a daughter, Jean's (Joan Plowright) unexpected return home to consider an emotionally conflicted proposal of marriage (whose acceptance would entail moving away from the family and immigrating to Africa to seek their fortune). The middle-aged son of a highly regarded, retired musical hall entertainer, Billy Rice (Roger Livesey), Archie has forged an entire career by capitalizing on his father's beloved name to obtain financial backing and secure theatrical contract extensions, despite a series of unprofitable productions and ill-advised ventures. Inevitably, when a chance meeting with a supportive, love struck beauty queen (Shirley Anne Field) introduces the possibility of her influential parents' financial support for his latest envisioned project, Archie's extended absences from home soon places Jean in the awkward role of protector and reluctant conspirator, as she attempts to conceal her father's latest infidelity from her increasingly insecure and emotionally fragile stepmother. As in Look Back in Anger, the film serves as a pointed allegory for contemporary British society as a fading, and increasingly irrelevant, empire - a sense of encroaching obsolescence where fortunes (and reputations) are no longer found within the insularity of its own borders, passed from generation to generation, but are to be made elsewhere (note Archie's standing offer to work in Canada that echoes Jean's fiancé's search for opportunities abroad). Framed against a peripheral, yet profoundly transformative international crisis, the metaphoric intersection between Archie's personal life and a country's collective consciousness becomes a reflection of the nation's gradual emergence from the delusion of its distorted self-image - the performance of the familiar, hollow spectacle from a usurped stage before a silent, adoring, imaginary audience.