Entertainer, The (1960): Tony Richardson’s Version of John Osborne’s Play, Starring Olivier in Oscar-Nominated Performance, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, and Albert Finney in Screen Debut

Tony Richardson’s second film, The Entertainer, a follow-up to his highly acclaimed debut, “Look Back in Anger,” casts Laurence Olivier in one of his greatest modern performances, as Archie Rice, an aging, bitter vaudevillian, who‘s a selfish, pathological liar.

The Entertainer

The film was based on the play by British playwright John Osborne, which was first performed April 10, 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre, with Olivier in the lead; Osborne wrote the play at Olivier’s request.

Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger was adapted into a film in 1959, directed by Tony Richardson, and starred Richard Burton in the leading. Osborne, with Nigel Kneale, wrote the screenplay for the film. Osborne then decided to adapt The Entertainer, and co-wrote it again with Kneale.

Richardson again was assigned to direct the film, and Canadian Harry Saltzman produced it. Olivier reprised his role as Archie Rice, along with Brenda de Banzie, who played Phoebe, his hapless wife. They were the only members of the original cast to reprise their roles in the film. Joan Plowright, who had replaced Dorothy Tutin when the stage production moved from the Royal Court to the West End Theatre, was once again cast as Archie’s daughter Jean. Olivier, whose marriage to Vivien Leigh was disintegrating, would marry Plowright in March 1961.

Roger Livesey was cast as Archie’s father Billy, despite being only one year older than Olivier. George Relph, the actor who originated the role in the play, died in April 1960.

At once fascinating and disturbing, “The Entertainer” is adapted to the screen by John Osborne and Nigel Kneale, based on Osborne’s acclaimed stage play, which Olivier did with great success.

Reportedly, Olivier felt greater affinity with his role as Archie than with any of his Shakespearean roles.  Archie’s motto is expressed when he proclaims, “Life is a beastly mess,” which the bleak feature about moral and emotional stagnation goes on to show in all their ugly facets.

The sight of Archie, a third-rate vaudevillian, wearing garish make-up while delivering his creaking songs and unsettling monologues to his largely indifferent audiences is truly depressing.

Archie’s domestic life is just as demoralizing as his professional one.  His wife, Phoebe Rice (Brenda de Banzie), has been driven to depression and alcoholism due to Archie’s betrayals and insensitivities.

The tale’s only truly positive character is Jean, played by Joan Plowright, who goes out of her way to accommodate Archie’s various needs.

Alan Bates impresses as Archie’s son smart and cynical Frank, and Finney shows promising in a small role as Archie’s soldier son in Egypt (his debut).

The film was a box-office disappointment

Detailed Plot (How the Narrative Unfolds, Scene by Scene)

Jean Rice, a young London art teacher, travels to a seaside resort (not specified but partly filmed in Morecambe) to visit her family. She is emotionally confused, having had a row with her fiancé, who wants her to emigrate with him to Africa. She also is deeply concerned about the Suez Crisis, having seen her soldier brother go to the war. She has attended a peace rally in Trafalgar Square, directed against prime minister Anthony Eden.

The resort has declined from its pre-Second World War heyday and is now drawing waning crowds, despite being in season. The music-hall act of her father Archie Rice plays out to a small number of uninterested spectators. Her family is deeply dysfunctional, the beloved grandfather, once a leading star of music hall, lives in quiet retirement with his daughter-in-law and grandson.

An undischarged bankrupt and semi-alcoholic, Archie is desperately short of cash, hounded by creditors, the income-tax people and his unpaid cast. He is adored by his cynical son and watched with mild amusement by his father. His relationship with Phoebe, his second wife, is strained; she is aware of his womanizing tendencies, and begins drinking heavily.

Archie is desperate to secure a new show for the winter season. While acting as master of ceremonies at a Miss Great Britain beauty contest, he charms Tina Lapford, the woman in second place, and embarks on an affair with her. Her wealthy parents, wishing her to have a showbiz career, offer to back up Archie’s new show, if it includes her.

The radio reports that Archie’s son Mick has been captured by the Egyptians at Suez after firefight, but Archie seems oblivious of the news and family distress. He is fixated with his dream of restarting his stalled career and his affair, which hsi daughter discovers. His grandfather then goes to the girl’s parents and tells them that Archie is married and a bankrupt. They swiftly break off contact with him, terminating the financing of his show.

When news arrives that Archie’s son has been killed in Egypt, his body is returned.  A civic commemoration is attended by the whole town, and the son is to awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. Archie is still too busy fixating on his career to notice his family falling apart. His brother-in-law wants to help the family to relocate to Canada and help him run a hotel. But Archie persuades an impresario to promote a new show, with his father as the headline attraction. His father, despite his age, is still extremely popular and in demand.

On opening night, his father collapses and dies, completing the family’s state of estrangement. His wife and son are determined to go to Canada, and Archie is set on staying in Britain, even if it means going to jail.

The film ends on a grim note, with Archie making a final performance to an apathetic audience.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actor: Laurence Olivier

Oscar Awards: None

 Oscar Context:

In 1960, Olivier competed for the Best Actor Oscar with Burt Lancaster, who won for “Elmer Gantry,” Trevor Howard in “Sons and Lovers,” Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment,” and Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.”

Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice
Brenda de Banzie as Phoebe Rice
Roger Livesey as Billy Rice
Joan Plowright as Jean Rice
Alan Bates as Frank Rice
Daniel Massey as Graham
Shirley Anne Field as Tina Lapford
Thora Hird as Mrs Lapford
Albert Finney as Mick Rice (his film debut)
Charles Gray as Columnist


Continental Distributing (Woodfall Production)

Directed byTony Richardson

Produced by Harry Saltzman

Screenplay by John Osborne and Nigel Kneale, based on Osborne’s play of same title.

Music by John Addison

Cinematography Oswald Morris

Edited by Alan Osbiston

Distributed byBritish Lion Films
Release date: 25 July 1960
Running time: 108 minutes


I had a chance to refresh my memory (and notes), when TCM showed the movie on Father’s Day (as a sampler of “bad dad”), June 21, 2020.

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