‘The Entertainer’ or — Bitter Rice?
I like snark in my movies. I can’t stand it in real life but in a film a real streak of snarky bitterness can be great. Which is just as well as Tony Richardson’s ‘The Entertainer’ (1960) might just be one of the most snarky and bitter films I’ve ever seen!
Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) is a music hall comedian and he is awful. How awful is he? He’s so awful you’ll want to claw your eyeballs out and stuff them in your ear holes just to block out his act, ladies and gentlemen. Musical hall is fading (thank God), as dying as the British Empire, but Archie is doing his best (no matter what that entails) to keep this national/family tradition from totally collapsing.
Archie’s family is also disintegrating around him, something which only concerns to Archie as potentially losing another audience for his act. This is because Archie is always performing whether on stage or not, always covering up the pain of his life with worn out jokes that can’t quite keep the cracks from showing. There’s a chance there might be nothing to this man at all… and voids have the tendency to consume everything they come in contact with.
With his son fighting in Suez, his father on his last legs, his wife descending into alcoholism and depression and his daughter considering emigrating to Australia it seems as though Archie’s fate mirrors the British Empires, although his need to show off might touch on something distressingly universal.
‘The Entertainer’ is excellent but it’s almost unbearable to watch, and not just because of Archie’s terrible act. It’s also the nihilism which is Gorgonzola strength strong here making the eyes water, the mouth grimace and the nostrils flare at the overpowering stench. John Osborne and Nigel Kneale’s script (based on Osborne’s play) contains razor sharp lines which cut straight to the desperate, pathetic nature of Archie’s pathological need to perform. Anybody who has ever stepped onto the stage might well shudder with recognition at some this.
But the script cuts maybe a little too deep with a few of the digs at aspiration, past times, past glories (both personal and national), family, the need to perform, the desire to be entertained, and especially class (the worst thing you can be here is “common”) being less satirical barbs and more contemptuous stabs right to the gut. This is not a kitchen sink look at working class life; this is holding it up and regarding it with total disdain!
At one point Archie, who loves nothing more than singing music hall songs in front of anyone who’ll listen declares in a rare moment of fleeting honesty that he “doesn’t even like that kind of music”. And I agree with Archie! I grew up in the era of Trevor Horn and orchestral stabs so fuck this antiquated shit. This isn’t celebrating the passing of music halls but more the relief this sort of crap is being consigned to history.
Fortunately John Richardson’s energetic directing keeps everything from descending into the maudlin or pitiful. It’s not subtle, hard cutting from a seeming tender conversation to the savage violence of a Punch and Judy Show being a good example, but it’s neither overly flashy. Scenes are staged well and the performances are immaculate.
Not surprisingly it’s Olivier’s turn as Archie Rice which dominates, a man consisting solely of finely honed comic ticks which, when stripped away, reveal something truly frightening (it’s not a surprise this creepy figure must’ve inspired the Level 42 video “Something About You”).
Yet, ultimately, it almost becomes too much, a tad too unrelenting. The film closes (no spoilers) on a gag and it’s a good one but it’s also a massive “Fuck you!” to the audience so I’m not quite sure it’s really worth it. Sitting there as the closing credits rolled I felt as though I’d just been told to go bugger myself so was left feeling oddly bemused.
‘The Entertainer’ is a fascinating look at the dark side of the British psyche at a point where the entire nation was about to radically change. It’s an incredible, if flawed, example of British filmmaker and acting. Don’t be fooled by the title as it’s not so much about music hall tradition (and it’s in NO way a celebration of it) but more about the collapse of Empire, the dysfunctional dynamics of family and the fronts we can all sometimes put on for others. In some way, and this is the scary part, we can all be a little bit like Archie Rice. Christ.