John Osborne on Film: The Entertainer

Olivier The EntertainerPart I. Anger, Suez and Archie Rice

“There they are,” George Devine told John Osborne, surveying The Entertainer‘s opening night audience. “All waiting for you…Same old pack of c***s, fashionable assholes. Just more of them than usual.” The Royal Court had arrived: no longer outcasts, they were London’s main attraction.

Look Back in Anger vindicated Devine’s model of a writer’s-based theater. Osborne’s success attracted a host of dramatists to Sloane Square. There’s Shelagh Delaney, whose A Taste of Honey featured a working-class girl pregnant from an interracial dalliance; Harold Pinter’s The Room, a bizarre “comedy of menace”; and John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, which aimed a Gatling gun at its audience. Devine encouraged them, however bold or experimental. “You always knew he was on the writer’s side,” Osborne said.

Peter O’Toole called the Royal Court actors “an appalling bunch of strange young men creeping around, talking pompously.” This “appalling bunch” included Alan Bates, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith – and O’Toole himself, starring in Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall. Joan Plowright said “I found my own sense of voice as an actress, and an exhilarating sense of purpose” there. England’s latest actors found the Court more exciting than West End commercialism or Old Vic classics.

Anthony Eden
Anthony Eden

This theatrical revolution matched postwar England: economic austerity, political stagnation, the Empire’s disintegration. Five months after Anger‘s debut, Anthony Eden’s government conspired with France and Israel to prevent Nasser’s Egypt from nationalizing the Suez Canal. The resultant fiasco, with Britain censured at the United Nations and scorned by its American allies, graphically demonstrated British impotence. In 1958, a bloody coup in Iraq destroyed Britain’s Middle East empire, after which Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan, decolonized Africa.

Ian McKellen remembered that for his generation, “the year 1956 was the year of Look Back in Anger and the year of Suez.” In 1957, Osborne interwove England’s cultural and political disintegration into his next play.

Osborne created Archie Rice, a third-rate musical hall comedian frightfully aware of his lack of talent. Between performances, his home life’s miserable. Father Billy is an aged comedian – far better than Archie, now a doddering old man. Wife Phoebe lives in denial, ignoring Archie’s drinking and affairs; son Frank misguidedly emulates him. Only daughter Jean seems above his foibles. Archie fights with his family, cheats on his wife and evades income tax, making his show biz failures more acute.

In theory, a typical melodrama. Yet The Entertainer‘s depth and ambition overcome familiarity or other shortcomings. Kenneth Tynan praised Osborne’s “big and brilliant notion of putting the whole of contemporary England onto one… stage.” Rarely has a play diagnosed a nation’s anxieties better than The Entertainer.

Max Miller
Max Miller

Despite his cynicism, Osborne deeply respected England’s theatrical past. He was enamored of music hall, a hallowed vaudeville tradition mixing patriotic songs, bawdy humor and variety acts. Once England’s favorite lowbrow entertainment, it had vanished by 1957, supplanted by theater, pop music, films and television. The last major venues closed in 1960; music hall’s favorite performer, Max Miller, died in 1963. Osborne mourned its passing: “The musical hall is dying, and with it, a significant part of England.”

Osborne always mixed affection with excoriation. Archie’s a terrible performer, who can’t sing or tell a joke. He rambles about someone wearing “a lemon in his ear,” concluding – wait for it! – he’s bought a lemonade. Worse still are his songs, preaching selfishness (“Number one’s the only one for me!”), conformity (“Thank God I’m normal!”) and vulgar patriotism (his backdrop is a nude Britannia). His signature ditty is called “Why Should I Care?”, proclaiming apathy a cardinal virtue:

“Why should I care?

Why should I let it touch me!

Why shouldn’t I

Sit down and try

To let it pass over me?”

Thus Entertainer represents postwar Britain. Billy is Churchill’s England, comfortable in its grandeur and superiority, blind to modernity; Archie becomes a vaudeville Anthony Eden, a pious hypocrite destroying both his predecessors’ achievements and the hopes of British youth. Archie’s soldier son Mick dies fighting in Egypt; his father dies while preparing a comeback tour. Unable to lean on past glory or future hopes, Archie destroys himself.

Modern critics aren’t kind to The Entertainer. “The plot creaks, the characters are often mouthpieces, the third act… just keeps on going,” Clare Brennan wrote of a 2009 revival starring David Schofield. Flawed it may be, The Entertainer seems more complete than Anger, more compelling in its allegory, flawed hero and cutting verbiage. A big part of its contemporary success can’t be replicated: the casting of Laurence Olivier.

Archie RicePart II. Olivier Comes To Court

How did Olivier – England’s premiere Shakespearean actor – come to the Royal Court? Thank Arthur Miller. The American playwright was visiting London with Marilyn Monroe, starring in Olivier’s film The Princess and the Showgirl. Miller asked Olivier about Look Back in Anger; predictably, Olivier trashed it as “a travesty on England.” This only intrigued Miller, who accompanied Olivier to Anger. Miller’s enthusiasm shocked Olivier: had he missed something?

Through George Devine, Olivier arranged a meeting with Osborne, then acting in Nigel Dennis’s Cards of Identity. Olivier praised Osborne’s performance and asked if he had a play for him. Amazed, Osborne muttered he might find something suitable. Soon, Olivier received an early draft of The Entertainer.

It’s often claimed that Osborne wrote The Entertainer for Olivier. In fact, he’d been writing it already. As evidence, Olivier originally asked to play Archie Rice’s father, Billy. For Olivier, playing a faded symbol of English glory was no stretch. Whether through Osborne’s persuasion, or reading the script more carefully, Olivier consented to play Archie instead.

After signing on, Olivier offered cock-eyed suggestions. He begged Osborne to remove “that anti-Queen s***,” deprecatory references to the Royal Family and Harold Macmillan. Some minor cuts resulted: “Larry felt he’d bravely defended the Queen,” Tony Richardson sneered. Absurdly, he suggested casting his wife, Vivien Leigh, “in a rubber mask” as Archie’s wife! (Brenda de Banzie played Phoebe, sans mask, and won a Tony nomination during The Entertainer‘s Broadway run.)

Osborne, Mary Ure, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier
John Osborne, Mary Ure, Vivien Leigh, and Laurence Olivier

Nonetheless, Olivier’s casting seemed felicitous. He saw Archie as a special part, representing some hidden anxiety about himself. Richardson recalled Olivier asking of Archie, “It’s me, isn’t it?” Later, Olivier claimed that thanks to The Entertainer, “I began to feel… the promise of a new, vitally changed, entirely unfamiliar me… that I was starting a new life.”

Perhaps Olivier overstated this: still a leading man on stage and screen, he was decades away from slumming in Inchon and The Betsy. But his fractious marriage to Vivien Leigh gave him headaches: during Entertainer‘s production he fell for costar Joan Plowright, whom he later married. (Leigh sought revenge by wooing Osborne, who panicked at her attentions.) And Olivier, as well as any actor, could relate to Archie’s wounded, self-loathing monologue:

“You see this face… this face can split open with warmth and humanity. It can sing, and tell the worst stories in the world to a great mob of dead, drab erks and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because – look at my eyes. I’m dead behind these eyes. I’m dead, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there. It doesn’t matter because I don’t feel a thing, and neither do they. We’re just as dead as each other.”

Olivier’s casting unnerved many in the Royal Court, who feared The Entertainer became a mere star vehicle. But his participation gave Devine’s English Stage Company a legitimacy they’d been lacking. William Gaskill, Devine’s associate, told him “The moment you decided to play Archie Rice it became a movement of importance to the theater.” Soon the Court attracted John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield beside their young talent, without dampening its versatility.

Directed by Tony Richardson, The Entertainer soon transferred to The West End, and later Broadway. With unusual generosity, Osborne told Olivier: “Nothing could deprive me of the memory of your tremendous, overwhelming performance, nor the experience of working with such greatness.” Olivier thanked Osborne “for the most deeply engaging part, perhaps barring only Hamlet and Lear, that I can remember.”

In 1960, a film ensued. Like Anger, it was produced by Harry Saltzman and directed by Tony Richardson. Unlike Anger, Osborne helped with the adaptation, though Nigel Kneale wrote the balance of the script. And several of the original cast – not only Olivier, but Joan Plowright and Brenda de Banzie – repeated their performances onscreen.

Entertainer WomenIII. The Film

The Entertainer makes a much better movie than Look Back in Anger. For one, it’s easier to “open up” the story: Osborne and Nigel Kneale transform Archie’s performances into real shows, complete with acrobats, chorus girls and sneering audiences. No longer cramped in Jimmy Porter’s flat, Richardson and photographer Oswald Morris use real locations. Much of The Entertainer takes place at Morecambe, a Lancashire seaside town with crumbling piers and seedy revues perfect for the story. John Addison’s score echoes discordantly in the background, paralleling Archie’s sordid memories.

Richardson and Kneale expand several subplots. We see Archie judging a swimsuit contest and bedding its winner, Tina (Shirley Anne Field). This humanizes Archie: despite his greedy philandering, we feel sorry for him. Having a much younger, richer mistress highlights his own frailty. Unlike the play, we’re engaged in Archie’s attempts to retain his career, from a frantic phone call to Tina’s mother (with Archie’s showgirls laughing) and glad-handing an agent. Archie’s still a cad, but a complex, sympathetic one.

Richardson also expands Osborne’s supporting cast. In the play, Billy rants about Polish immigrants (“I hate the bastards!” is his opening line), sings hymns and seems a Blimpish caricature. Ironically played by The Life of Death of Colonel Blimp‘s Roger Livesey, he’s more sympathetic. Somewhat senile, Billy’s

Joan Plowright and Roger Livesey
Joan Plowright and Roger Livesey

resented by Archie and Phoebe; his efforts to help Archie generate resentment he can’t understand. But Billy also performs an impromptu beer hall ditty, showing his reputation isn’t all talk. When Billy dies, it’s genuinely tragic: he becomes Entertainer‘s heart.

Jean becomes more assertive: her antiwar activities are more pointedly alluded to, and she breaks off her engagement with a career-obsessed fiancee. She becomes a true foil for Archie, calling out his failings while defending him against untoward insults. Joan Plowright’s blunt, unfussy performance makes a good balance to her showy costars. Mick, unseen in the play, is briefly portrayed by Albert Finney. Only Phoebe and Archie’s son Frank (Alan Bates) don’t change from their stage incarnation.

If nothing else, The Entertainer benefits from preserving Olivier’s performance. He’s far removed from his Hamlet and Richard III: Olivier’s affectations fit the character. His singing’s obnoxiously off-key, his face smeared with grease paint and bad hair dye. Olivier restricts his hamming to Archie’s act: off-stage he’s all simmering resentment, snapping at family members and listening soulfully to radio reports about his son. His utter resignation, with weary smile and sullen eyes, during Archie’s monologue sell his emptiness. On film at least, Olivier was never better.

Olivier earned an Oscar nomination for The Entertainer, though far more 1960 viewers saw him in Spartacus. He occasionally returned to the Royal Court, notably opposite Maggie Smith in Ionesco’s Rhinocerous, but spent most of the ’60s running England’s National Theatre, which he cofounded in 1963. This project consumed Olivier’s time, energy and finances. Later roles became disreputable paychecks: for every Marathon Man there was a Jazz Singer. Still, when Olivier died in 1989, he was remembered for his stage and screen triumphs.

Tony Richardson considered The Entertainer a turning point in his career. Afterwards he commented, “I would never be happy shooting except in the open air or inside real locations.” Indeed, many of his later films were expansive epics: Tom Jones (1963), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Ned Kelly (1970). Yet he never matched The Entertainer‘s mix of stark photography and rundown locales again.

Predictably, critics were kind rather than enthusiastic towards The Entertainer. Bosley Crowther damns with faint praise: “The Entertainer may not be an earth-shaking or even an important film. But it is entertaining.” As with Anger, box office receipts were disappointing: stage success didn’t equal a cinematic blockbuster. Yet The Entertainer‘s easily the best Osborne adaptation, faithful to the play and a compelling film.

The EntertainerSources:

To Heilpern etc., add Richard Findlater’s At the Royal Court (1971); Dan Rebellato 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (1999); and Philip Ziegler’s Olivier (2013).

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