This weekend is the Black Bear Film Festival here in Milford, PA. One of the films being screened is the new documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series. After the movie, I’ll be conducting an onstage interview with Hilary Saltzman, daughter of the late Bond-film producer Harry Saltzman, followed by a Q&A with the festival audience. Ms. Saltzman is among those interviewed in the documentary itself. This promises to be a special event, especially for the many who count themselves as Bond fans.
When Harry Saltzman hooked up with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to produce Dr. No (1962), neither man could have guessed the size of their success, a franchise still going strong a half-century later. Saltzman stuck with the Bond series until The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), the second of the Roger Moore films, meaning that Saltzman was there for the Sean Connery years and the one-time Bond appearance of George Lazenby. But the Bond films aren’t Saltzman’s only legacy as a movie producer. Before 1962, he produced three movies: the Bob Hope-Katharine Hepburn comic misfire The Iron Petticoat (1957), a lame Ninotchka rip-off; the Tony Richardson-directed adaptation of John Osborne’s landmark play Look Back in Anger (1959), with Richard Burton bringing the British theatre’s new “angry young man” to the movies; and The Entertainer (1960), also directed by Richardson, also an adaptation of a stage play by Osborne.
The Entertainer is the best of the trio, most notably for preserving on film one of Laurence Olivier’s most renowned stage performances, both in London and in New York. And the screen version proved to be an equally dazzling showcase for Olivier, even if the overall piece itself isn’t ultimately all that satisfying or affecting. By starring in Osborne’s play, which Richardson also directed, Olivier was taking a risk, an attempt to prove that he could still be relevant in a much-changing theatre scene, a grittier and less genteel British theatre, a reaction against all those civilized plays by men like Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward. Could Olivier, glamorous star of both Hollywood and Shakespeare, be down and dirty enough for a play by Osborne, the man who shook the British stage in 1956 with Look Back in Anger and its angry-young-man central figure?
The answer was a resounding “yes.” And the film of The Entertainer lets us see what all the fuss was about. Olivier displays new and unexpected range and versatility as a sleazy stand-up comic and song-and-dance man, a second-rate vaudevilian. The character, Archie Rice, is rich fodder for an actor because he is seen in his public persona and in his mess of a private life. The onstage Archie is a smirking in-your-face performer, almost a forerunner to Joel Grey in Cabaret, while the off-stage Archie is a man consumed with self-loathing, boozy and womanizing, essentially isolated and rather ugly. With great precision and in masterly detail, Olivier delineates a man whose supreme selfishness stems from his utter desperation to alter, or even survive, his grim reality. It’s a compelling character study that doesn’t try to court our sympathy. Though strikingly overanimated on the stage (and delivering a nifty little tap number), the off-stage Olivier is a subtly conceived creation, savvy and calculating and a mesmerizingly deep and dark contrast to all that forced onstage glitter (shabby though it is).
The film is enhanced by its fresh setting of a seaside English town, plus the shadowy, atmospheric black and white of cinematographer Oswald Morris. Tony Richardson’s direction never seems stagy, teeming with seedy life. The piece’s symbolism, though, is obvious and pronounced: the dying days of Archie’s world of music-hall entertainment are clearly analogous to the dying days of the British Empire. The film “introduces” Joan Plowright, soon to be the real-life Mrs. Olivier but here cast as his daughter. Olivier’s two sons are played by newcomers Albert Finney and Alan Bates! And Brenda de Banzie repeats her stage role as Olivier’s current wife. But the standout member of the supporting cast is a touching and fragile Roger Livesey as Olivier’s aged father, a retired and beloved music-hall comedian whose success his son has never matched. This film gave Livesey, so memorable in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), a late-career plum role.
Thank you to Harry Saltzman for this admirable screen treatment of a theatre piece, but mostly for preserving Olivier’s stage performance, allowing it to become one of the actor’s finest screen performances.