Laurence Olivier

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Laurence Olivier Pencil Portrait
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Laurence Olivier is generally considered to have been one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. No less an authority than Spencer Tracey once stated that Olivier was “the greatest actor in the English-speaking world”, and twelve Oscar nominations, with two awards (Best Actor and Best Picture for the 1948 film ‘Hamlet’), two honorary awards including a statuette and certificate, five Emmys, and three Golden Globes and BAFTAs, testify to this assertion. The youngest actor to be knighted as a Knight Bachelor, in 1947, and the first to be elevated to the peerage two decades later, he was the founding artistic director of the National Theatre Company in 1963, a post in which he remained for a decade, and had earlier filled the same post at the Old Vic after the Second World War.

Naturally, I am very familiar with much of his screen work and yet – just as with Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing – whilst I can technically appreciate both men’s virtuosity, I never come close to habitually luxuriating in their legacy. In my efforts to write as objectively as possible, it is clearly time once again, for me to tread carefully.

In a 2006 radio interview, Joan Plowright, Olivier’s third wife, responded to allegations of her husband’s mistresses and homosexual affairs, stating that there was no need to defend his memory. “His performances, his greatness as an artist are there,” she said. Referring to Olivier’s battle with “demons,” which reached a peak in the years of illness leading up to his death, she stated, “If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn’t lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behavior which you understand, and you find a way not to be swept overboard by them.” Sound thinking, yet with the detachment that only years can bring. Frankly, I was stunned at how quickly the sanctity of his marriage to Plowright was blown to pieces in the early 60’s, and repetition of this behaviour with other women led inevitably to the couple leading increasingly separate lives in the last fifteen years of the union. All had appeared much different at the beginning of the relationship. In her memoirs, Lauren Bacall reflected upon the change in Olivier after he became involved with Joan, a period which followed years of coping with Vivien Leigh’s manic depressive tendencies. “The glow that emanated from him was blinding,” she wrote, “He dropped twenty years…..He could have a life, he had something to look forward to.” Speaking with his son Tarquin, born unto his first marriage to Jill Esmond, he was untypically effusive, “I am in touch with the real beauty of happiness at last.” Fully aware that Plowright would want children (despite ‘her life’ as she described it, being firmly committed to the theatre,his biographer Philip Zeigler writes that, ‘he addressed himself to his duties as a putative father with commendable alacrity’ Such being the level of distraction from loftier theatrical work, the implication in the writer’s chosen words suggests an early peerage might have been appropriate recognition for such mundane chores as changing nappies (diapers)! In any event, the couple would be married in 1961 and three children – Tamsin, Richard and Julie Kate – would grow up in a household run by fiercely competitive parents. Friends delighted in the change in Olivier and all looked well for the future, yet in little over a year, he would be embroiled in an affair with the twenty year old Sarah Miles, his co-star in “Term of Trial” (1962).

It would appear that for Olivier, life could imitate art, for in his private life he was conducting himself like his alter-ego Archie Rice in “The Entertainer.” Miles did not command his undying respect as an actress but – as his biographer Philip Zeigler points out – sex was enjoyable and it was always satisfying to be loved and courted, but the demands of the theatre came first. When Noel Coward rejected her for a leading role in “Hay Fever,” Olivier fired her before opening night without compunction. All in all then, behaviour very much characteristic of an indulged and powerful individual, yet on page 249 of his biography, Zeigler goes further by outlining all the whims and foibles of a man seemingly detached from the real world. Apparently, his relationship with Miles proved to be one of the most serious of his casual affairs, and according to at least one source he would consult with his agent Laurence Evans about the possibility of securing a divorce from Joan Plowright in order to marry the young actress. The idea was quickly and quietly dropped when the extent of his career ruination was fully outlined. I can but imagine what Evans thought about it all; tolerance perhaps, of a 55 year old man’s peccadilloes, incredulity about common interests the couple might have had outside of the theatre, but most of all, wonderment at such crass stupidity. Irrespective of whether Olivier was genuinely ‘in love’ (most unlikely) – in love with the notion of being ‘in love’ (possibly), or simply eager for ‘man talk’ – a boastful declaration of his continuing attractiveness to the opposite sex (most definitely), he was surely capable enough of determining the ramifications for all parties concerned.

Recommended viewing

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Carrie (1952)

Richard III (1955)

Enter GLOUCESTER, solus

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

Shot in VistaVision and Technicolor, ‘Richard III is the most eye-catching of Laurence Olivier’s essential big-screen Shakespearean adaptations, yet fell into disrepair and was unavailable for student viewings for years, due in no small part to lost footage, faded color hues, chemical staining, and missing frames.

Now thankfully restored to its former glory, the new Criterion blu-ray edition – issued on 2013 – delivers on all counts. The painstaking process of locating the best surviving elements, and restoring the film to a version remarkably close to Olivier’s original vision, is a joy to behold.

Literary philistines are advised to overlook Peter Sellers’ mock Olivieresque parody as Richard III on his Beatles cover version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” and refocus on The Bard’s masterful play.

The Entertainer (1960)

In 1957, the playwright John Osborne delivered a fitting elegy:

‘The music hall is dying, and with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.’

Changing fashions – the technological improvements in cinema, the development of radio, and the burgeoning popularity of the long playing gramaphone record after 1948 – all served to hasten the demise of music hall entertainment. The increased number of television sets purchased in Coronation year and the advent rock and roll drove the final nails in its coffin. Competing also with jazz, swing and big band dance music, encouraged some music hall owners to retain an audience by putting on striptease acts. It was all over barring the memories.

Laurence Olivier is Archie Rice, music hall’s death rattle. It’s often imagined that he’s based on the risque showbiz god Osborne worshipped, his saloon bar Priapus in multi-coloured plus-fours, Max Miller. But Miller was too funny to be an also-ran, whereas Archie has no talent. Osborne modelled him on a defeated entertainer he saw at the old Chelsea Palace giving a terrible impersonation of Charles Laughton playing Quasimodo. The anonymous man possessed a suicidal valour, and died a death at every performance.

Osborne always marvelled at Laurence Olivier’s uncanny understanding of Archie Rice’s floundering, cringing inadequacy and self-loathing, particularly when Archie appears to be aggressively confident. But years before ‘The Entertainer,’ Olivier had performed a clapped-out comic he named “Larry Oliver” as a party-piece for friends. “Ladies and germs – a very big hand, if you puhleeze, for the one and only Larry Oliver!”

It was Olivier, nevertheless, who received most of the attention of the critics. Reaction was very strong; critics either loved Olivier and hated the film, or the reverse. Olivier’s performance was powerful enough to earn him an Academy Award nomination, although he would lose out to Burt Lancaster for ‘Elmer Gantry.’

So what the hell is my problem with the picture? Revisiting it again in 2015 for the first time in four decades, I could marvel once again at Olivier’s take on a hollow, hypocritical heel, and the pitiful family members who drown each day under the weight of his grubby vanity. And that’s the whole point of it, where I’m concerned. Since Archie is too shallow and cheap to warrant very much consideration or extensive sympathy, and the members of his family — with the exception of his daughter — are generally stupid, unstable and dull, I simply didn’t care what happened to him. As his family unit fatally fractures, his decision to remain in Britain – thus affording his wife and son the opportunity of a new life in Canada – appears ‘kindness itself’ for all the wrong reasons.

Nevertheless, the director’s ‘mise en scène,’ – lighting, costume, décor – ably captures a form of entertainment in terminal decline, whilst Olivier is nothing short of brilliant as he runs the monotonous scale of turns and tricks of his shoddy entertainer, singing banal songs, pumping out endless off-stage wheezes and oozing absurd synthetic charm. A serial womaniser who preys on impressionable ‘stage struck’ young girls, he operates within the boundaries of legal consent, whilst exposing the emptiness of his soul. Propositioning her outside his caravan – “I thought we could be alone for the afternoon” – her acquiescence is assured, his latent experience at procuring such pleasurable diversions self evident. Laying in bed with the impressionable Shirley Ann Field, she naively asks him how he feels. “I feel um, happy I suppose,” he responds without even the merest hint of emotive ardour. As Miss Field eulogises about their relationship, he simply lies there without making eye contact. He will nonetheless, eventually experience the sharp end of her vulgar mother’s tongue, another tour de force cameo from Thora Hird.

The perennially excellent Brenda de Banzie is his poor, confused, ineffectual wife, struggling to hang onto nothing and whilst kidding herself with the illusion of hope. Yet despite her sterling support, it would be the young Joan Ploughright, in the role of Archie’s adoring daughter, who would identify the play’s core structural failing. “Olivier is fabulous in the part of Archie Rice and wonderful to act with, but the rest of the play’s characters don’t really mean very much.” Since Olivier had been performing the play since 1957, one must lay the blame on his testy relationship with Osbourne for not re-defining the other characterisations. Wary of the actor’s fame and its ability to disturb the balance of the original play, Olivier’s commitment to the work was equally undermined by a circle of friends concerned by his indecorous descent from the pedestal of classical theatre. As ever, pretentiousness was never far away.

A film therefore to savour for key individual elements, but little else. There’s insufficient charm throughout to withstand repeated viewings.

Term of Trial (1962)

The World at War (Thames Documentary Series) 1973

Now looking and sounding better than ever, the 2010 DVD remastered edition sits proudly inside my lounge bookcase, a permanent reminder of a television series that captivated me as a fourteen year old and thereafter in repeated viewings.

When this epic series was first broadcast in 1973, it redefined the gold standard for television documentary projects, and remains to this day the benchmark by which all such factual programming must judged. Originally shown as 26 one-hour programmes, “The World at War” set out to tell the story of the Second World War through the testimony of key participants.

Production costs more than doubled – the final figure tipping the £900,000 mark – making it one of the most expensive British shows ever made, but because of the wealth of interviews, rare footage, and stunning research, it remains one of the most important shows ever made.

I always loved Olivier’s narration but as the following link confirms, there were rumblings in some quarters that his approach was too mannered.

Carl Davis’ portentous main title theme and score underlines the grand scale of the enterprise. The original 26 episodes were supplemented three years later by six special programmes (narrated by Eric Porter – Olivier was still alive but seemingly unavailable), bringing the total running-time to a truly epic 32 hours

Voyage around my father (1984)

Recommended reading

Olivier (Philip Zeigler) 2013

I read Zeigler’s book on Olivier abroad during my summer 2014 holiday. I was interested in seeking answers to that most perplexing of questions, namely; the actor’s relevance in the 21st century. The number of people who saw him on the stage is rapidly dwindling – his last appearance in the theatre was 40 years ago – and his film performances are more inclined to provoke ridicule than admiration among younger audiences. When he appears as Gloucester in “Richard III (1955), to deliver the immortal “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York” speech, it’s difficult to ignore the vision of Peter Sellers reciting his mock Shaespearian version of “A Hard Day’s Night” ten years later.

Of course, his position in the history of the theatre is guaranteed, though that, in the nature of things, is a somewhat niche distinction. He was a great celebrity, with a famous love life. Zeigler does not gloss over his numerous affairs, nor does he ignore Olivier’s ‘camp’ theatricals; a form of behaviour with homosexual undertones which belied his rapacious appetite for women. In any event, sexual escapades fade with time, and if the principal protagonists can barely remember them, we should expect little more recall from a general public anaesthetised by changing social mores. What surprised me was the biographer’s fascination with the last twenty years of his subject’s life, a period marked by diminished faculties and fading health. Perceiving his work with the national Theatre as a lasting testimony to his greatness, he continually probes the actor’s legacy.

What Zeigler achieved for me, was the actual contextualisation of Olivier’s professional achievements, and above all else, the creation of the National theatre, in 1963. It is over five decades since the National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier gave their first ever performance. Since the opening night of ‘Hamlet’ starring Peter O’Toole on 22 October 1963, the National Theatre has produced over 800 plays. For its first 13 years, the Company worked at the Old Vic Theatre, while waiting for its new home to be completed. In 1976, under Peter Hall, the move took place and Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre building was opened by The Queen. In each of the years since, the National has staged over twenty new productions. Several different productions can be seen in any one week and there are over 1,000 performances every year, given by a company of 150 actors to over 600,000 people, with many more seeing NT productions in the West End, on tour or via NT Live cinema broadcasts.


Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

Olivier’s official site has little to commend it, but the following link contains some interesting essays and photographic pictorials.

Kendra Bean is the author of “Vivien leigh,” (2013), as well as being the designer and editor of vivandlarry, an online historical archive and blog dedicated to Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, classic Hollywood, and world cinema. The following link contains an interesting interview with the author.