14 December 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The 1976 TV movie 'The Entertainer' is an Americanised version of John Osborne's famous play, which was a stage vehicle (and film) for Laurence Olivier. As good as Olivier was in the original, this TV movie is better ... and Jack Lemmon gives a standout performance, ably abetted by an excellent supporting cast.
'The Entertainer' is a musical, but (as in the film version of 'Cabaret') all the songs are plausibly incorporated into the action. Most of the songs are elaborate stage numbers for Lemmon's character (in one case teamed with Ray Bolger). Offstage, Bolger leads several characters in a rousing rendition of a vaudeville comedy song, and Sada Thompson gives a touching rendition of a wartime ballad. Lemmon begins and ends the movie with a simple little ditty called 'The Only Way to Go', which he performs while accompanying himself on piano. (In real life, Lemmon was a fine pianist.)
The action is set on the home front during World War Two. Jack Lemmon plays Archie Rice, a third-rate comedian (and second-rate song-and-dance man) in a cheap burlesque house. Archie's lousy career is made more galling by the fact that his father (whom he despises) was once a vaudeville headliner: Billy Rice (Ray Bolger, in a splendid acting performance), who keeps receiving offers for comeback performances, but who is now very firmly retired with a bad heart. Archie has an adult son and daughter doing their bit for the war effort. (I normally dislike Tyne Daly, but she's excellent here and looks very sharp in her WAC uniform.) This film is one of Ray Bolger's few opportunities to show his skill as a dramatic actor: he does an excellent scene with Sada Thompson, in which she berates him for eating the cake she was saving for a special occasion. Bolger mumbles excuses with cake icing on his mouth, but he gives a fine performance.
Archie's flops onstage are made worse by his ordeals at home: his wife Phoebe and his son and daughter and father all despise him. In a desperate attempt to finance a musical extravaganza which will (he hope) bring him stardom at last, Archie has been writing bad cheques. When Archie is threatened with prison, he swallows his pride and asks his father Billy to make a comeback onstage with Archie. The publicity attending Billy Rice's long-awaited return to the stage will help Archie's career, and the box office receipts for Billy's comeback will pay off Archie's bad cheques and keep him out of prison.
All the musical numbers are splendid, and (for once) they actually sound as if they were written in period. I especially liked 'I Bend Over Backwards for the Red, White and Blue', a number which Archie performs in his burlesque-show act. For this number, Jack Lemmon wears very cursory 'drag' (nothing so elaborate as his drag act in 'Some Like It Hot') while a very sexy female contortionist does backbends in a skimpy outfit. (I consider her outfit very unlikely for a character onstage in the 1940s, but I'm not complaining.)
The climax of the story, both dramatically and musically, is the elaborate stage show which Jack Lemmon and Ray Bolger perform for the Rices' father-and-son act. Ray Bolger's dancing is remarkable here. It's obvious that things will end tragically (the dialogue keeps referring to Billy Rice's medical condition), so there's suspense during his dance routine as well as drama.
The one fly in the greasepaint is Michael Cristofer, who gives a bad performance as Archie's son. Not for one instant did Cristofer convince me he was playing someone living in the 1940s. Cristofer later won a Pulitzer Prize as author of the play 'The Shadow Box'. He should stick to playwriting. I'll rate 'The Entertainer' 10 points out of 10. The Olivier version is excellent, but this one is better.