The Entertainer

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THE ENTERTAINER is a number of things, but entertaining isn’t one of them. Enervating is more like it. To employ e’s, examine that this exacting excoriation of excessive ego encourages not excitement but ennui. Empathy and Empire are key: how much of the first do you have for the second?

Exhausted England after WW2, starting in the mid 50s and lasting roughly a decade expelled produced one of the bleakest of genres, the “Angry Young Man” or “Kitchen Sink” dramas. These were inhabited by sullen, bitter men and used, frustrated women, stuck in grimy locales, venting spleen in dulled black & white for two hours at a dose, with no salvation for the unlikeable characters and no exit for the audience until ‘The End’ credits crawled, assuming you stuck out the self-pity before doing something more appealing than watching these gits, like slitting your wrists.

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During the Suez Crisis of 1956, in a faded seaside resort town, the mincing, lecherous, grotesque ‘Archie Rice’ (Laurence Olivier), an irredeemably self-centered, has-been music-hall comic, wastes his life and ruins much of his family. Story, plot, finish.  Like others in its drab class, the script by John Osborne, from his play, uses the self-deceiving, deeply unhappy Rice family as Metaphor for Britain’s decline.*

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Coming in #67 at the box-office, it was directed by Tony Richardson, is not well edited, lasts for 107 minutes, and served to introduce Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Joan Plowright (she married Olivier a year later).  Also in the cast are Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey, Daniel Massey, Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird, Charles Gray and Nigel Davenport.  Plenty of talent, and the acting is fine, with Olivier getting a dutiful-applause Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing in a walk to Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry). He was superb the same year in Spartacus, where his proto-fascist Roman general Crassus was more endearing than Archie Rice, a bloke so deeply anti-charming it’s a trial to stay in the same room with the TV set.** & ***

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* Thus are the Mighty Fallen. Economically prostate from WW2, humiliated in Asia, kicked out of India and Kenya, bypassed and sidelined by the cheeky Americans, the average Briton had a great deal to be glum about for a good while.  Spirit returned with a flourish and was exported extravagantly in the mid-60s, with the Beatles, Stones, 007 and Swinging London. Pluck and humor won through. Thank goodness, after Look Back In Anger, Darling, Room At The Top, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, The Luck Of Ginger Coffey…..a little of that morose mob and you need to watch Straw Dogs to cheer up.

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** The same 1960 had three other great English actors playing ungentle men who time was passing by: Trevor Howard in Sons And Lovers and Alec Guinness and John Mills in Tunes Of Glory. Great films, far more rewarding to partake than this cosmic downer.  Plus there was The League Of Gentlemen, The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, The Brides Of Dracula, Village Of The Damned and Sink The Bismarck—good movies all.  If you insist on more Angry Young Bummers, that same year director Richardson also made Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, giving leads to newcomers Finney and Field.

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*** What the heck: personalize it. I once did a one-day temp job stint at a business that dealt solely in washers, screws and assorted little bits of fastener bric a brac. Inventory-time. The regular staff were the sweetest collection of…well, metal fittings-nerds, and they were thrilled not only to have help, but were eager to regale me with all manner of history regarding Item 2472-B and how it differed by  “3/16th from the one Parker-Johansen made in 1947-63”, and on & on. Now, it’s a dark, claustrophobic warehouse and I’m counting washers for eight hours. If these people had been jerks, it would have been a real drag, erased from memory instead of imprinting an oddly touching episode in fond recall. There were thousands of other businesses in the city that day, each with their role to play, some more glamorous than others. In trying to figure out what to say about this grueling, depressing film, one that does a good job portraying a milieu and is certainly well acted, I compare it to that Nut, Bolt & Washer repository.  Real, authentic, professional, maybe even necessary on some level– -but unless you enjoy the company, why the hell would you ever want to hang out there?  Especially when next door (channel, disc) is a restaurant, bookstore or park?  Or pub.

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