Confessions of a Real Actor

Laurence Olivier talks about life, acting, and Vivien Leigh

by Gerald Clarke
TIME, November 15, 1982

The appointment is for 3 o’clock. Exactly two minutes after the hour a white Bentley wheels around the corner of an elegant block of town houses in London’s Chelsea district. The two men inside wave encouragement at the reporter vainly ringing the bell at the first house in the row. While his chauffeur is unlocking the door, the passenger, who is also the owner of the house, murmurs apologies. “My dear fellow, I’m so sorry. Were you waiting long? I was having lunch with my agent, and I had a drink, which I’m not supposed to do.” An elderly gentleman in gray-green country tweeds and brown suede shoes, he rolls his eyes, as if he is sharing a dark and wicked secret, and wraps his visitor in a furry mantle of charm. Even on a first encounter, Laurence Olivier has, as one of his friends observes, a gift of intimacy.

Leading the way up a flight of stairs lined with old theatrical prints, he enters his study, a warm and comfortable room, and slowly settles onto a couch, elevating his legs to minimize the effects of phlebitis. A portrait of a pretty dark-haired woman hangs on one wall; that is Joan Plowright, his third wife and companion of 21 years, painted when she was playing Masha in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, which Olivier directed. Next to one of the windows is a huge picture of a young man dressed in Romeo’s tights. He is impossibly handsome, with a long-lashed, almost feminine beauty. More striking still is the look in his eye: assured, confident and fiercely determined to ascend to the heights.

And that is the peak on which Lord Olivier finds himself now, nearly 50 years after he posed for the artist. The first actor to be elevated to the peerage in the 600-year history of the House of Lords, he has so many honors that even he sometimes seems to choke on the incense. At 75 he has decided it is time to blow away some of the smoke and tell his own story. His autobiography, which he aptly titles Confessions of an Actor, Laurence Olivier, came out in Britain in October and will be published in the U.S. next month (Simon & Schuster; $16.95). Sometimes embarrassingly frank, other times disappointingly discreet, it is, from beginning to end, always Olivier. He turned down would-be collaborators, like the late Critic Kenneth Tynan, and began work with a ghost. But after talking into a tape recorder for 30 or 40 hours, he took charge, as he usually does, and wrote everything himself. Now, on this chilly fall day, he has come in from the country to talk about his life and what he calls “my damned book.”

Neither one is a subject he much enjoys discussing, it might be added. Although unfailingly polite, he makes it clear that there are some subjects he does not like to talk about. He does not, for example, have many grand theories about acting, and he thinks that those who do, like the late Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio, are phonies. “I heard him lecture twice,” he says, “and his students sat, mouths agape, drinking in every word as if it was a veritable theory founded on long experience. It was no such thing.”

Olivier is interested not in theories but in specifics: how a character looks or walks, rather than how he feels. “You must contrive to make an audience believe,” Olivier says. “My own childish belief would have them think that what was going on onstage was really happening. When I was 17, I saw John Barrymore’s Hamlet in London, and I thought that it was burningly real. I believed he was Hamlet, and I believed in the situations through which he was going. The actor’s ambition is to put an audience in the position in which they are lost in you, hi what you are doing.”

Awed by Barrymore’s wild leaps and bounds, Olivier became the most athletic stage actor of his generation, bringing the excitement of movement, as well as that of sound and expression, to the stage. “I had the voice,” Sir John Gielgud once said; “Larry had the legs.” Olivier also became the most daring. He would, and still will, lay himself bare, make himself vulnerable as few actors are willing to do. “A great actor has to expose himself,” says Producer Derek Granger, who worked with Olivier when he was director of the National Theater, then on several TV plays. “Larry has never been afraid of revealing his nakedness.”

On more than one occasion, that willingness to expose himself makes embarrassing but fascinating reading. He writes of the clandestine beginning of his romance with his second wife, Vivien Leigh, in the late ’30s. Both were already married, and their public adultery shocked many at the time. Then he describes the horrifying conclusion, largely brought about by her infidelities and emotional problems. But part of the problem, he indicates, may also have been that he failed to satisfy her sexual demands, which finally provoked him to tell her that an athlete onstage cannot always be an athlete in bed.

In conversation, Olivier only hints at such a problem, blaming part of the trouble on Leigh’s overidentification with one of her two Academy Award-winning roles, that of the obsessively promiscuous Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. (The other role, of course, was Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.) “My late wife Vivien was too much affected by the parts she played,” he says, “and if she got ill, which she certainly did, dreadfully had a great deal to do with playing Blanche Dubois, being ill in the same way.

“I can’t tell you why I stayed with her so many years. I did. I didn’t know what else to do, but to stay along and suffer. I couldn’t have been in love with her all of the time, possibly. But you develop a very deep feeling if you have the determination to go through a terrible lot to be together in the first instance, as we did, to go through scandal, to receive awful letters from the public, to have people spitting at you in the street. It breeds in you a great determination. And that will outwear a lot of bad weather; it will stand constant in the teeth of the gale and in the drenching of the flooding rain.” Olivier seems to feel the force of the gale at that very moment and gloomily, unhappily adds: “Wish you’d talk about something else.”

“How about Joan Plowright?” “Yes! She’s a very remarkable person, intellectually equipped, attractive, has hosts of friends. People love her so much that they don’t notice that I’m not really a very good host. She’s one of the three or four best actresses in England, and she’s an absolutely fantastic mother.” Olivier himself fell in love with her in 1957, when she was playing his daughter in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. She was 28, he was 50, and after finally burying the ashes of his marriage to Leigh, he married her in 1961. A sensible woman from the north of England, Plowright has been his anchor ever since, and her judgment, according to Olivier, is almost infallible. Though she interrupted her career when her children were born, Plowright has now put it back on course. Her most recent part was the title role in Keith Baxter’s play Cavell, the story of a British nurse shot by the Germans in World War I. The play had a successful run in Chichester last summer, and she hopes to take it to Broadway, with Olivier directing.

All of Plowright’s common sense has been necessary in the past dozen or so years, when Olivier suffered one devastating illness after another: phlebitis, cancer of the prostate, appendicitis, pneumonia and, worst of all, in 1974, a rare skin disease called dermatopolymyositis, which destroys the muscles. “I didn’t mind the others as long as they didn’t stop me from working,” he says, “but I was terribly depressed by this thing. My life is almost bounded by that illness. I was very The you see, and I relied inviting for my effects upon what I might call Barrymoresque physical jokes. All of that is now cut off, and one has to think of less obvious methods.” Some of these less obvious methods will be seen in King Lear, which Olivier recently completed for Britain’s Granada Television. According to those on the set, Olivier turned his obvious weakness from a liability into an asset, a tool to portray the pathos of Shakespeare’s mad and ravaged monarch.

Illness seems not to have disrupted his work schedule at all. From 1975 through 1981 he acted in no fewer than 20 films, including Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, The Boys from Brazil and the lamentable Inchon. “Any sort of thing that I haven’t done before interests me,” he says, “and there are any number of American parts I’d love to play. I feel very flattered if I’m acceptable in an American role.” Then too there is the inducement of money, always important to the son of an impoverished parson. For any big part Olivier’s fee is now at least $1 million.

Since his skin disease was arrested, Olivier has found comfort in the one form of exercise remaining to him, swimming. At his country home in West Sussex, about an hour and a half’s drive south of London, he has built an enclosed pool, and he swims there twice a day. “I have a switch in my bedroom that turns on a blower in the pool room,” he says, “and by the time I arrive, it’s amply warm. I like the water to be 77° or 78°, but my wife won’t go in at such a low temperature. So I set the thermostat at 80° and tell her it’s 82°.”

The house, made up of two converted cottages, is bigger than it looks, with more than enough room for the Oliviers and their three children, Richard, 20, Tamsin, 19, and Julie-Kate, 16. Richard and Tamsin plan to follow their parents into the theater. Dickie, as he is called, is in his second year at the University of California at Los Angeles; Tamsin is studying acting in London; Julie-Kate, who has yet to make up her mind, attends a coeducational private school in Hampshire. Weekends are busy, and there is a constant stream of guests. “You never know who you’ll find there,” says one close friend, Interior Designer Kenneth Partridge. “Larry will say, ‘Who’s coming?’ and Joan will reply, ‘Whom have you invited?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he’ll say, and then when someone comes by he’ll say, ‘Well, I must have invited him.’ ”

Such forgetfulness is one of Olivier’s chief worries these days. He recently consulted a psychiatrist to see what could be done about it. To his dismay, he was told to give up alcohol, which he has vowed to do, except for occasional lapses, until Christmas. He is not happy with having to make a choice, however, and grumbles that “it is very reasonable to have a gin at lunchtime and two whiskies and a couple of glasses of wine at dinner as long as you don’t drink anything after dinner.”

“It would be terrible to discover that the psychiatrist is wrong,” his visitor suggests.

“Oh, it would be awful! I should shoot him! Perhaps I should go for a second opinion. One should do that always.”

On that cheerful note, goodbyes are said. Olivier prepares to return to the country, his wife and his pool, as inviting as a baby’s bath. There is a final thank-you to “Lord Olivier,” and he utters a sound, difficult to describe but impossible to forget, somewhere between a sorry sigh and an angry bellow. “Lord Olivier becomes a bit boring, you know.” Then, as he tells everyone but delivery boys and chimney sweeps, he says: “Call me Larry.”

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