classic film laurence olivier reviews

The Curious Life of Laurence Olivier

If you’re looking for a great documentary on England’s greatest actor, look no further than Laurence Olivier: A Life.  Well, you can’t look any further because to my knowledge it’s the only documentary made about Laurence Olivier.  It also happens to be really good.  In the summer of 1982 at the age of 75, to coincide with the publication of Confessions of an Actor, Lord Olivier sat down with reporter Melvyn Bragg over a period of a few days to talk in depth, for the first time, about his life and career.

I had found a VHS copy (2 cassettes) on ebay about 8 years ago and hadn’t watched it in quite some time owing to the fact that I no longer have a VCR, and this doc. isn’t available on DVD.  Imagine my happiness when a fellow fan who visits sent me a DVD copy all the way from England!  Having some spare time last night, I made celery sticks with peanut butter and sat down for some quality time with my favorite old thespian.  I was not disappointed.

It’s fascinating to hear Laurence Olivier talk about acting because he was obviously so passionate about it, and confident in his abilities, even if he didn’t always like his work.  I do wish he’d talked more in-depth about his personal life, but I have to say I think he gave it quite a good shot in this film.  He spoke of how his father terrified and fascinated him at the same time, how he never really got over his mother’s death when he was 12 years old, and how he thought that experience in some way shaped who he had become as a grown man.  Larry had a rather rough childhood, but he was determined to make it in acting and he went out and did it, which is very admirable.  He didn’t talk much of Jill Esmond, but he did talk a fair amount about Vivien Leigh.  He explained how he wanted to marry her before going back to London during the war because they didn’t want to have to deal with leave and special circumstances in a changed environment.  He also talks about how he always knew she had what it took to be a great actress, but that it took some years before her talent (on stage) came out and shone as a light on its own.  He acknowledged that it was after their divorce that she really hit the mark on her own, and said she was “very remarkable” in the last few years of her life.  In the end, Larry turned out to be quite a character.

I thought the way he summed up his life with Vivien was quite interesting and to me, very telling as well, not in what he said, but the way he said it:

“It was a partnership that people felt mighty attracted by…and it involved all sorts of glorious luxuries like Notley Abbey.  There were great satisfactions about it, and then various, most unfortunate experiences with illness came upon us–not mine–but things began to become, unfortunately, very very difficult, but I don’t want to talk about that.  But  on the whole, it was–it was a life.  It was a rich experience, but if you’re asking me if I look upon it with a special roseate hue, no.  I like my life better now than I have ever liked it.”

Perhaps it is because I’m  a hopeless romantic, but every time I hear that clip I can’t help but think he’s lying when he says he doesn’t look back on his marriage to Vivien with a “roseate hue.”  It’s his tone of voice, he gets very quiet and sort of far away.  I don’t know, maybe he never did, but it’s certainly contrary to people claiming they caught him in his final years watching Vivien films on tv and weeping, saying “This was love.  This was the real thing.”

What do you think?

At any rate, I love the intimacy of this documentary, and I love the stories Larry tells.  I also love the commentary from a few of his famous friends: a drunken Ralph Richardson, a very eloquent John Gielgud, a very tan Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and a very classy Sibyl Thorndike.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it quite gets tot he bottom of who Larry was as an individual, but I don’t think any biography has every quite gotten there, either.  Still, it is a very interesting portrait.

As I said, this documentary is unfortunately not on DVD (even though it should be since it won a bunch of Emmy’s), but perhaps I can make some copies to give away as contest prizes!

Rating: A

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (16)

  1. Well, add me to the club of hopeless romantics, but it wouldn’t be the first time that somebody tries to tone down something significant. On the other hand, Vivien brought joy to his life, that joy can be acknowledged without a ‘roseate hue’, too, despite the difficulties, which is what it sounds to me. Things always seem different from a distance, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. I’m sure at that age he was grateful for the more peaceful life (I guess) he was leading. But, again this sounds like a hopeless romantic, I think that this love affair will always be between just the two of them. He did his share of taking care of her in her life, he seems to have done so in her death, too. <3 And *that* will always be 'the real thing.'

  2. That’s very true. He does talk about their problems in his autobiography, but in interviews he never really did. There is also a part in this documentary when he is on stage at the Old Vic, and he talks about how it’s important to leave your characters on stage and not bring them home with you because that sort of thing can bring a lot of misery to a person, and I just knew he was referring to Vivien and Blanche DuBois. I knew it.

  3. “It was a partnership that people felt mighty attracted by”….we still are Larry….we still are.

    And the last sentence sounds like a line practised well…and not at all genuine. Yes in my opinion as well he is lying…his pause tells a million truths instead.

  4. So fascinating! I’ll have to try to watch this on YouTube, if all the clips are on there.
    He did sound kind of distant when he was talking about their former life. Maybe in some ways he was happier or more content in his life after Vivien. But I’m sure he always missed her…just hearing him fondly talk about her & her talent is enough proof.

    Also, his outfit in the documentary was cracking me up, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the hat. :p

  5. Add me to the club of hopeless romantics!!
    THANKS KENDRA for all!!sometimes I cried , sometimes moves me, watching your blog, website and more…Deeeply grateful

  6. what can you mean by ‘larry had a rather rough childhood’? is it just the difference between english and american understanding? larry’s childhood would certainly not be understood as ‘rough’ in england. far from it. he himself described it as one of ‘genteel poverty’ ie. respectable, polite and well-bred. his schooling, although not one of the top public schools such as eton or harrow, was elitist, as was his choir school. his education would have been thorough and privileged. his accent and demeanour clearly indicated his class. his childhood may have been difficult in the loss of his mother and his relationship with his penny-pinching father but ‘rough’ absolutely not.

  7. Yes, by “rough” I meant “difficult”. Losing a parent at such a young age (especially the one he was closest to), getting picked on at school, not having a good relationship with his dad, etc., that’s rough.

  8. I was and still am a great fan of Laurence Olivier. His Shakespeare film where so well done I think. My favourite is Richard 111. I wrote to him at his London offices of Laurence Olivier PRODUCTIONS. I asked him for two signed photos which where sent along with the letters. The photos where unfortunately lost in a move some years later.

    this is what he wrote to me.

    Dear Carole Headlam. Thank you so much for your very sweet letter. I am very touched that you should want to subscribe to the National Theatre. This really is a job that is being looked after by the government and I don’t think they are going to the public for the money. But I am sincerely grateful to you for your extremely kind and generous thought. Please take my very warmest wishes and thank you so much.
    9th October 1962.

    Dear Miss Headlam,
    It was so kind of you to send me such a charming Christmas card thank you very much indeed for your thoughtfulness. I am in fact at present appearing in a play in London and do indeed hope that I shall do another play here some time in the future my very best wishes for 1963.

    3rd January 1963.

  9. I watched the programme Laurence Olivier a life with Melvyn Bragg when it appeared on TV many years ago. I thought that LO was so entertaining his stories about his acting career and some of his personal life. Even as an elderly man his charm and charisma still shone through. I would have loved to have met him my admiration for acting talent especially in Shakespeare has never lessened.

  10. Olivier’s letters very charming i agree Carole heath. He was a brilliant actor he had a talent for interpretating human nature which he brought to His acting so brilliantly. I saw him in othello in London in the 1960’s . Although His interpretation of the moor regarding blacking up would not be politically correct today he gave a performance which many people admired.

  11. Love the letters from Laurence olivier. He was such a diverse actor regarding his acting skills. I saw him in uncle vanya with Joan Plowright at the Chichester festival theatre in the early 60’s. And the old Vic theatre production of three sisters also with olivier and Joan Plowright. I also saw Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s macbeth at Stratford in the 1950’s . Vivien leigh was much maligned as an actress I think because of her good looks but she was brilliant as lady macbeth which complimented Olivier’s macbeth.

  12. Thank you Fiona and norma for your comments regarding Laurence Olivier’s letters which he sent to me in the 1960’s. You mention uncle vanya and three sisters plays norma by anton chekhov which you saw performances of in the past. I have these productions on DVD and have recently purchased long days journey into night by EUGENE o’neil with Laurence olivier and supporting cast.

  13. My late mother and also myself where fans of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. My mother took me to a local cinema in Devon in the early 60’s the cinema was running lady Hamilton in which they where both in made in the 1940’s I loved that film the chemistry between Olivier and Vivien Leigh was so evident. The story of nelson and Emma Hamilton lives seemed to mirror Olivier’s and Vivien’s leigh’s own relationship in the beginning. I saw that TV programme Laurence Olivier a life when it was on TV in the 1980’s. I thought it was very interesting he was I think candid to a degree about his life with Vivien Leigh but I think he did not want to go to much in depth about their private struggles. The hurt still seemed to be be there. Her illness their relationship problems their divorce. One thing I admired Olivier for he never to my knowledge bad mouthed Vivien Leigh in public about their marriage which I believe was tempesuous. His stories which he told where quite amusing at times. I liked the one where he got sacked for giggling when the actor appearing with him in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar toga fell down over his feet on stage and he couldn’t move. Next day the woman who ran the company called Olivier into her office and sacked him. I wonder if she later knew what a wonderful actor Olivier did become. He really brought Shakespeare to the masses with his film of henry v. I wished the TV would put Laurence Olivier a life on again some time I would love to see it again.

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