Olivier, Laurence: Centennial

This year marks the centennial of Laurence Olivier, the brilliant performer of the British and American stage, screen, and television. At the height of his career, from the 1940s to the early 1960s, Olivier was hailed as the greatest classical player and Shakespearean interpreter of his time.

To celebrate this event, www.EmanuelLevy.com will run individual reviews of many Olivier pictures.

Film critics and scholars have always compared his work and achievements to those of his two great contemporaries, Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) and John Gielgud (1904-2000). All three were brilliant and eccentric performers, albeit in different ways, though there’s no doubt that Olivier was the most internationally famous of the three, due to his Lengthy Hollywood career.

Laurence Olivier was born on May 22, 1907, in Dorking, Surrey, England; he died in 1989. Asked once how he would prefer to be addressed, Olivier suggested: “How about Lord Larry”

Brilliant Child Actor

The son of a strict Anglican clergyman of Huguenot ancestry who curiously encouraged him to take up acting, he made his debut as a schoolboy of nine, playing Brutus in an abbreviated version of “Julius Caesar” at London’s All Saints Choir School. His mature performance astonished Dame Sybil Thorndike, who was in the audience.

At 14, as a pupil at Oxford’s St. Edward’s School, Olivier played a convincing Katharina in a boy’s performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Shakespeare Festival Theatre at Stratfordon Avon. He then joined the Birmingham Repertory (192628) and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1929.

Rejected by Garbo

Olivier’s British screen debut was in 1930 and his Hollywood debut the following year. But his early career both on stage and on screen was fraught with fiascos and disappointments, culminating in Greta Garbo’s refusal to accept him as her leading man in “Queen Christina.” For years, Hollywood speculated, what kind of career Olivier would have had if Garbo did like him. (Olivier was reaching his prime just as Garbo was about to retire, in 1942)

It wasn’t until the mid1930s that Olivier was recognized as a major talent. Within just a few years, through a succession of memorable Shakespearean roles on stage and several romantic portrayals in Hollywood films, Olivier emerged as one of the most exciting and versatile actors in the Englishspeaking world. Through such heartthrob roles as Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights,” Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” Dr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” and Lord Nelson in “That Hamilton Woman,” he was establishing himself in the banner years 193940 as a glamorous Hollywood star

In 1939, when WW II broke out, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force but was turned down. Undaunted, he piled up 200 flight hours on his own and in 1941 joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. He was released twice to make propaganda films. In 1944, he was discharged from service and appointed codirector (with Ralph Richardson) of the Old Vic Theatre.

While supervising the restoration of the distinguished theatrical institution to its prewar glory, Olivier began his first film as director: “Henry V.” It was an astounding critical success and won for him a special Academy Award (foreign films were then not competing) for his triple triumph as the director, producer, and star of the film.

Olivier’s second film, “Hamlet,” won the Best Picture Oscar and Best Actor for Oivier, as well as a number of other Academy Awards. He was afterwards nominated for Oscars nine times. In the 1979 Academy Award ceremony (for film achievements in 1978), Olivier was awarded a Special Oscar for “the full body of his work, the unique achievement of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film.”

To the chagrin of his admirers, Olivier directed himself in only two more films in the next two decades, an excellently played adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III and the rather stodgy “The Prince and the Showgirl”, in which he costarred with Marilyn Monroe.

However, Olivier continued appearing in occasional films and in numerous plays, demonstrating his virtuosity in a wide range of roles, from Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Chekhov, to John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” and the RunyonSwerlingBurrows musical “Guys and Dolls’ (as Nathan Detroit).

In 1963, Olivier became the director of England’s National Theatre Company. The following year, Olivier, famous for his boldness as an actor, was uncharacteristically overcome by a severe case of stage fright. “It pursued me for five years and became a monster of a nightmare,” he later recalled. Although he eventually conquered his fear, he played his final role on stage in 1974, a year in which he became stricken with dermatomyositis, a crippling muscle disease.

Although he was plagued by other persistent illnesses, including leg thrombosis and prostate cancer, he continued appearing in films and TV, in roles large and small, with amazing frequency.

Work for Work’s Sake

During the past decade of his life, Olivier was criticized for his indiscriminate choice of screen and TV roles. Heis response was short and simple, saying he worked for the money so that he could afford a good education for his childrenand maintain a certain lifestyle.

Hence, in 1979-1980, he appeared in a secondary part in the whimsical fable, “A Little Romance” (starring Diane Lane as a child actress), “Dracula,” as Profesor Van Helsing, and the remake of “The Jazz Singer.” In the following years, he could be seen as Zeus in the campy “Clash of the Titans,” “Inchon,” in which he played General MacArthur), the Wagner miniseries, the TV movies “Last Days of Pompei” and “A Talent for Murder,” the third remake of the “Bounty,” and the sequel Wild Geese II.

Olivier’s very last screen role was in Derek Jarman’s “War Requiem,” in 1988, a year before he died.

Knighthood and Honors

Knighted in 1947, Olivier was made a peer of the realm with the title baron in 1970. In 1971 he took his seat in the House of Lords. But he was possibly more flattered by the adulation of his professional peers who in 1975 named the London Theater’s equivalents of Broadway’s Tonys, the Olivier Awards.

In 1983, Olivier was honored for his lifetime achievements by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and was guest of honor at the White House for a private screening of his TV movie “King Lear.”

Olivier’s Oscar History

Olivier was nominated for 10 Academy Awards: 9 in the lead and one in the supporting category. He won one Oscar, Best Actor for “Hamlet” in 1948, which also won Best Picture.

His nominations span almost four decades, from “Wuthering Heights” in 1939 to “The Boys from Brazil” in 1978.Olivier also received an Honorary Oscar from the Academy in 1979.

Four of Olivier’s Oscar nominations were for his famed Shakespearean interpretations, playing Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, and Othello.

Best Actor Nominations: 9

1939: Wuthering Heights
1940: Rebecca
1946: Henry V
1948: Hamlet
1956: Richard III
1960: The Entertainer
1965: Othello
1972: Sleuth
1978: The Boys from Brazil

Supporting Actor Nominations: 1

1975: Marathon Man

Olivier’s Personal Life

Although he shunned publicity, Olivier’s private life was the subject of much public speculation. He had been married since 1930 to stage and screen actress Jill Esmond, when he fell in love with the also married Vivien Leigh on the set of their 1937 film “Fire Over London.” Amidst much nasty gossip, Esmond was granted a divorce in 1940, on the grounds of adultery.

Several months later, Olivier married Leigh. Their tempestuous marriage lasted 20 years, surviving frequent conflicts and Leigh’s bouts with depression and eventually mental illness. In 1960, Leigh, naming actress Joan Plowright as a correspondent, obtained a divorce on the grounds of adultery. The following year Olivier married Plowright, to whom he remained married until his death.

Prolific Author

Olivier wrote an autobiography, “Confessions of an Actor” (1982) and the books “Five Seasons of the Old Vic Theatre Company” (in collaboration, 1950) and “On Acting” (1986), in which he described in detail how he created some of his finest roles.