Fading vaudeville comic Archie Rice (Olivier) plays to virtually empty music halls in Britain's seaside provinces — limping through the same stale routines in garish makeup — but sidesteps his failure through pathetic flings with younger women. Selfish, arrogant, and insensitive to those around him, especially alcoholic wife Phoebe (De Banzie), Archie ultimately damages the lives of everyone in his family, including doting daughter Jean (Plowright).
Ironically the foremost symbol of traditional English theatre, Olivier showed off his astounding range with an anti-heroic, tour-de-force turn in Tony Richardson's 1960 drama, adapted from John Osborne's play. Reprising his celebrated stage role, Sir Larry has a field-day playing Rice, a somewhat ghoulish has-been who personifies his own nation's decay; the effort earned him an Oscar nomination. De Banzie and newcomer Plowright (who'd go on to marry Olivier) excel in supporting roles. (This also marked the film debuts of up-and-comers Albert Finney and Alan Bates).