It’s not uncommon for people to want to spend time with their families when they’re under pressure. So when Jean Rice (Joan Plowright) is overwhelmed from dealing with a fiancé who wants to move to Africa and her brother being off in Egypt fighting in a war, she takes a trip to see her family. But when she gets there, she realizes things aren’t quite what they used to be. The resort town they live in isn’t as crowded as it ought to be and her father, music hall performer Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier), isn’t drawing the crowds he used to. Considering that music hall was on its way out, a lot of people would try to move onto something else. Not Archie, though. Archie is kind of like the Norma Desmond of music hall performers — once popular, but he refuses to accept that times have changed and simply won’t give up the stage. He’s chronically in debt (he’s spent the last twenty years dodging the Income Tax people), he drinks a lot, and makes no efforts to hide his womanizing from his wife Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie). After judging a bathing beauty pageant, Archie starts having an affair with the runner-up in hopes that her rich parents would finance his new show. He meets with her parents and they’d be happy to fund his new show, as long as their daughter gets to star in it. Meanwhile, Archie’s son has been captured in Egypt, but he can’t be bothered to care too much since he is so focused on reviving his career.
When Jean finds out that Archie is thinking of divorcing Phoebe and marrying this new girl, she is furious and tells her grandfather, retired dance hall performer Billy Rice (Roger Livesey). Billy is equally furious and finds the girl’s parents and tells them all about Archie’s marriage and financial problems. Of course, they immediately pull their backing and leave Archie a frantic mess. When he thought the show was a sure thing, he signed some checks in his own name, which he isn’t supposed to do because of his bad credit. Billy, feeling guilty, agrees to come out of retirement to appear in Archie’s show so he will be able to get funding. However, this new show is plagued by tragedies. Billy collapses and dies right before going on stage opening night and then Archie gets word that his son has been killed in the war. Most of the family is ready to move on to Canada and take an opportunity to run a hotel. But not even the threat of going to jail for tax evasion is enough to make Archie want to step out of his spotlight.
Laurence Olivier’s performance as Archie Rice is nothing less than inspired. When it comes to movies about has-been stars, the two big ones are What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard, but The Entertainer really ought to be mentioned alongside those movies. Olivier manages to go from pathetic to infuriating to downright heartbreaking without missing a beat. It’s hard for me to even articulate just how genius he was in this movie. It’s one of those things where the performance itself speaks more than words ever could. Just watch this scene to get a little taste:
One of my favorite scenes in the movie was the final scene where Archie is performing, but quickly realizes that he’s doing his last show ever. It very much reminds me of the famous final scene from Sunset Boulevard:
Laurence Olivier gave a lot of outstanding performances in his career, and his performance as Archie Rice easily ranks as one of his greatest.