I ordered The Entertainer at the same time as the Expresso Bongo DVD, as I thought they made a pair. It came yesterday. This one has much better acting and direction than Expresso Bongo. There is also a basic difference in viewpoint. Expresso Bongo deals with a kid breaking into the recording business who is much exploited by his agent and the record producer. To a degree he joins the corruption, but his agent warns him that if his fans detect any hint that he is looking down at them and is merging into the establishment he will lose his audience. It is, after all, the rebel without a cause era and the music of rebellion when it is any good. The sappy religious song he has to sing to get his second hit contradicts this story line because that audience would only be alienated by it. Bongo is conflicted in its treatment because the satire requires the star to have the role of victim, to make everyone else look worse, and but also to be part of the corruption to complete the satire of an industry corrupt from top to bottom. The movie never finds a balance. Another theme is the passing fads and music crazes and the folly of those who stake their identity on these short careers.
The Entertainer puts the artist at the center, and makes him the architect of his own corruption. We have three generations: a grandfather from the old comic song music hall days, the middle generation played by Laurence Olivier doing a Noel Coward type who performs with continuous suggestiveness and gender ambiguity oddly prized by that supposedly straight generation, and the youth generation. This has many representatives: there are tacky show-stage Elivis type acts which Olivier’s character, Archie Rice, won’t even hire, there are his children who stay out of the business or only play a backstage role, and finally the audience. The young people in the front row keep asking each other, “Does he think he is funny?”
Rice is both the performer and the con-artist who gets others to go along with his doomed productions, now long out of fashion. And he is always ‘on’, working the cast, his family, the crowd in the bar. One gathers that we are to infer that this is what his art is also, a con on the audience. For his part Rice needs to be drinking or be in front of an audience. He will not give it up, and he will not listen to those who try to tell him that it is all over. He won’t listen because he really understands what it is that they want to say, and has already rejected that advice.
The film is very well done, but it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. It reminded me of those fifties and sixties singing group guys who always show up on public television during pledge week.