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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Entertainer’: Reliving Olivier’s Act of Greatness

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Richardson’s 1960 “The Entertainer,” based on the John Osborne play, is a cultural event of the first importance.

The print on view at the Monica Premiere Showcase in the Monica 4-Plex (through March 15) doesn’t contain any newly rediscovered footage; it doesn’t reveal itself in some souped-up new format. Its importance lies in its preservation of one of the half-dozen or so greatest performances ever committed to film--Laurence Olivier’s ferociously hurting music hall trouper Archie Rice.

For a generation unaccustomed to this film in particular, or, alas, to Olivier in general, this movie should serve as a signifier of what great acting is all about. For those of us who saw it years ago, or only on television, it’s a necessary pilgrimage--this film is rarely revived.

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Olivier once said of his role in “The Entertainer,” which he first made famous onstage in a production directed by Richardson, that “it was much more refreshing than tormenting oneself through these punishing roles of Shakespeare. I have an affinity with Archie Rice. It’s what I really am. I’m not like Hamlet.”

It’s amazing that Olivier could say this about one of the great tormented characters in modern English theater. His performance is so emotionally overwhelming that, watching him, refreshment is about the last thing to come to mind. Archie Rice is a man in so much pain that he seems permanently contorted.

His bawdy, tawdry throwaways onstage, in the crumbling, half-empty music hall that is Osborne’s stand-in for the dilapidation of England, match his cadences with his family and everyone else he covets, loathes, pities. Archie walls himself in, brick by brick, with cynical patter.

Osborne, whose second play this was after “Look Back in Anger,” was an Angry Young Man playwright but, in Archie Rice, he gives us a middle-aged man whose anger has incinerated himself from within. Archie is an Angry Hollow Man, except that he keeps overflowing with sorrow. He can barely conceal his disgust for the patrons who put up with his act, but the greatest hatred he reserves for himself.

With his bowler hat and bow tie and lipsticked mouth, his hair parted down the middle, Olivier’s Archie has the rubbery features of a warped clown, a more malign Joe E. Brown, perhaps; his movements are jerky, manikin-like, as if his strings were being pulled by a sadistic trickster. Archie says to his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright), “You see this face? Look at my eyes. I’m dead behind these eyes,” and then we see Olivier’s eyes--the most hyper-alert eyes in movies--and, yes, they’re stone-cold dead.

There is much to recommend in this movie besides Olivier: Plowright’s nuanced performance; Brenda De Banzie’s raucous pathos as Archie’s wife Phoebe; Richardson’s direction, which makes the performances, some of which, like De Banzie’s, also derive from the London stage production, seem newly created; Oswald Morris’ eloquent, shadowed cinematography; brief appearances by the startlingly young Albert Finney and Alan Bates.

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There are some lapses, too, as when Richardson whittles down and cuts away from Archie’s final stand-up performance to give us some expendable backstage hubbub. Would he cut away from Hamlet during one of his mad soliloquies?

But Olivier’s performance is so lacerating that these lapses simply don’t matter. Archie’s audience may be deadbeats, but we who are Olivier’s audience watch the screen in a state of aghast communion.

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