Directed by Tony Richardson • 1960 • United Kingdom
"Life is a beastly mess," states the great Olivier in this superb drama of the seedy music hall life. He is a third-rate vaudevillian whose song and dance routines are crusty, unappealing, and decidedly boring. He appears in a broken-down music hall, once so popular with British audiences, playing to an almost deserted house. Olivier's home life is as shabby as his stage career. His wife, De Banzie, is a shrewish alcoholic who nags him constantly about his failures. His father, Livesey, a once famous entertainer, is dying, yet Olivier prevails upon him to back just one more tawdry musical revue. Only Plowright, his protective daughter who has given up her own life and career, tries to meet Olivier's emotional needs. But he is an incorrigible liar and self-promoter whose raging ego demands he be admired by one and all. To that end he even cheats on his wife with a witless beauty contestant to enhance his coffers and self-esteem. His sons, Bates and Finney, see Olivier for what he is but accord him superficial respect. The seamy life, his own hammy cliches, his frightful desperation to consider himself a "star," is summed up in his cheap little act and the grim makeup he dons as a guise behind which to hide, presenting a face overly colored so that his eyes appear sunken, his skin pallid, a grotesque gargoyle of a face. But Olivier cannot delude himself forever; when Livesey pathetically dies in the wings, knowing his son is a dismal failure, Olivier recognizes his own miserable character, telling Plowright that he is "dead behind the eyes." Olivier's world comes tumbling down finally onto the garbage heap he has built up through a life of self-deception, sneaky schemes, and ruthless unconcern for those who love him. This depressing but fascinating film is another Olivier tour de force; the actor, whom many consider the greatest thespian of this age, is compelling and unforgettable in a flawless performance.