What Is British Cinema?: "The Entertainer" (1960)

We come back to the issue of British acting in The Entertainer (dir. Tony Richardson, 1960), which sports a phenomenal performance by Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice, a sad-sack music hall performer whose manic, incessant jokes barely mask a seething misanthropy.  The great Sir Laurence playing a second-rate huckster who sings and dances for half-empty houses, taken out of Elizabethan costume and tarted up like Joel Gray in Cabaret (1972)—it’s a great idea, and Olivier delivers, not surprisingly.  (He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.)  It’s a kind of slumming.  What would the modern-day equivalent be?  Meryl Streep doing a mumblecore film?  Or is Olivier’s willingness to play such a desperate, seedy role the equivalent of having a beautiful actress like Charlize Theron uglify herself to play a serial killer?  In any case, what we have in The Entertainer is the frisson of British classicism rubbing up against kitchen-sink realism. 

Charles Taylor notes as much in his essay on the film, in which he writes that “to the theatrical establishment who derided the Angry Young Man school of theater and fiction […] as vulgar and defeatist”—the school out of which The Entertainer, its director Tony Richardson, and its screenwriter John Osborne come—“the participation of one of the pillars of the British theatrical tradition must have seemed like collaboration with the enemy.”  And yet I think Olivier’s performance here is even better than his Hamlet; it’s nervier, more painful, and more tragic, in its own shabby way.  Ugliness is not inherently more “real” or more impressive than prettiness, but the ugliness of Olivier as Archie Rice is somehow more profound than the beauty of his performance as Hamlet.  For Pauline Kael, the kitchen-sink tragedies of the British New Wave were not so different from those of Shakespeare.  Writing in 1961, she defended Richardson’s previous film, an adaptation of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, against a fellow critic’s charge that its hero was “insufferable.”  “Wouldn’t he find Hamlet insufferable,” Kael retorted, “and Macbeth, and Othello, and Lear?” 

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