Olivier with Passionate Drama

By Megan Rosenfeld
The Washington Post July 12, 1989

Laurence Olivier, whose versatility and daring thrilled generations of theatergoers and awed thousands of colleagues, died yesterday in his sleep at the age of 82. He had been in ill health for several years, including bouts with cancer and a kidney ailment.

During his six-decade career, Olivier became what some critics have called the greatest actor in the English-speaking world. His greatness lay not only in his mastery of the technical arts, but in his willingness to take risks. His dedication and personal charm brought dignity to the theater, and his demonstration of hard and unending work set a standard that inspired many others. He played 121 stage roles, 58 in the movies, and 15 on television. He also directed 38 plays, six movies and six TV productions. His last acting assignment was a cameo part in the 1988 movie “War Requiem.”

Although he made his name as a classical actor in such roles as Romeo, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Richard III and Henry V, he also embraced modern drama, led Britain’s National Theatre Company to international prominence as its first director, caused many hearts to flutter as a movie star and matinee idol, and was the first to make films of Shakespeare’s plays that were innovative and popular. He was knighted and in 1970 dubbed Lord Olivier of Brighton.

In the later years of his career his performances were restricted to films such as “Sleuth” and “The Clash of the Titans” and the television productions of “Brideshead Revisited,” “King Lear” and “Voyage Round My Father.” He turned to film partly to make money, but mostly because he refused to stop working and could no longer remember lines well enough to tackle a stage role. His last stage appearance was in 1973, in “The Party,” a modern play by Trevor Griffiths.

His career spanned most of the theatrical styles of the 20th century, from the frothy elegance of the 1920s to the Theater of the Absurd, but his own style came to signify the best of classical acting: complete control of voice and body, informed by study and psychological analysis. He disdained the “Method,” which he thought emphasized the personal experience of the actor at the expense of the author’s intent (and he was equally dismissed by the Method’s chief proponent, Lee Strasberg). At times he was called a showoff, criticized for choosing bad plays and movies, and ridiculed for relying overmuch on physical tricks and makeup. But ultimately his legacy is that of the consummate craftsman and artist.

His personal life was touched with scandal and tragedy, particularly when he left his first wife, Jill Esmond, and their infant son to live with and later marry Vivien Leigh. That marriage, though it lasted on paper for almost 20 years, disintegrated painfully as Leigh became mentally ill at a time when such disabilities were little understood. In the last 30 years of his life he found happiness in his marriage to actress Joan Plowright and in their three children.

By his own account (his autobiography, “Confessions of an Actor,” was published in 1982), his inclinations toward the stage began early, influenced by the ritual of the Church of England. His father was a clergyman. His mother taught him speeches by Shakespeare and Marlowe that he declaimed, along with others he made up, from a small stage in the corner of his bedroom. Also, he wrote, he developed a disturbing habit of lying, which was “a compulsion in me to invent a story and tell it so convincingly it was believed at first without doubt or suspicion.” Although his mother’s punishments finally cured him-more or less-of this trait, he later wondered, “What is acting but lying, and what is good acting but convincing lying?”

His earliest performance was greeted with unusual approval for an 11-year-old. Playing the part of Brutus in a school production of “Julius Caesar,” he was seen by the noted actress Ellen Terry, who wrote in her diary, “The boy who played Brutus is already a great actor.”

Olivier has listed several influences on his career and art. The first was the legendary Elsie Fogerty, founder of the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art in London, who admitted him as a teenage scholarship student. Another was actress Yvonne Printemps, who told him, “Darling, always take a breath when the audience doesn’t expect it-never at the end of a note or phrase.”

Director Tyrone Guthrie taught him the importance of loving the character he played, no matter how despicable, and Noel Coward “made me use my silly little brain,” he told Kenneth Tynan.

One of Olivier’s best traits was his determination to overcome the shortcomings nature dealt him. He began to exercise to develop his physique-a regimen he continued all his life-and to work on his voice, increasing his range, improving his enunciation and deepening its timbre. He also became interested in accents, another enduring fascination.

His passion for hard work outside rehearsal became one of his trademarks, as was his effort to expand his physical and vocal abilities. The part of Othello was an example: Taking it on when he was 57, he worked out daily to enlarge his lung power, lowered his register to baritone, and studied the cadences of English in the Indies as a model for his Moor’s sound. The makeup took 3 1/2 hours to apply.

Influenced by the films of Douglas Fairbanks and by John Barrymore’s Hamlet, Olivier developed an athleticism onstage that was sometimes criticized as showing off. But his feats are remembered by audiences as stunning moments in the theater.

As the flamboyant actor Tony Cavendish in “The Royal Family” (a play modeled on the Barrymores), he leaped from an upper landing over a banister and onto a stairway below (and fractured his ankle two months into the run). As Romeo, he vaulted a wall, and as Puff in the Restoration comedy “The Critic,” he was lifted out of sight to the area above the stage, astride a cloud, only to slide down a rope a few moments later, appearing to cling to the curtain as it descended.

With his portrayal of Romeo in 1935, his first major Shakespearean role, Olivier introduced a new way of interpreting the Bard, one that was intentionally less poetic, more physical and earthy. The critics were appalled, and Olivier was taken aback by their rejection. “I had always seem myself so vividly as the one and only Romeo that when the sledgehammer of opprobrium struck its blow from every critic to a man, I was so shocked that it was all I could do to get myself onstage for the second performance,” he wrote. Critics notwithstanding, the public flocked to see him; it was a unique tandem performance in which he and John Gielgud alternated in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in what today might be called a Battle of the Bard.

With Hamlet in 1937, he investigated psychological motivation, basing his interpretation on the writings of Ernest Jones, who theorized that the Prince of Denmark was suffering from an Oedipus complex. More visible, however, was “a lusty, athletic, impulsive young royal whose moments of introspection were more reflections of an impatient, petulant nature than a nature beset by philosophical agony,” as biographer Thomas Kiernan described his portrayal. Again, the critics assailed him for being “flashy” and “pretentious,” and th public laid siege to the box office.

His Iago, to Ralph Richardson’s Othello, was again influenced by Jones; this time the theory was that Iago was really in love with Othello. One anecdote about rehearsals for this production, a story Olivier told on himself, is that Richardson, who thought the homosexual interpretation ridiculous, was taken aback one day when Olivier suddenly threw his arms around his neck and kissed him full on the lips. Richardson, Olivier wrote, “coolly disengaged himself from my embrace, patted me gently on the back of the neck, and more in sorrow than in anger, murmured, “There, there, now dear boy; good boy. …”

At this time Olivier’s personal life was taking a turn that would dramatically affect his career. He left his wife for a beautiful young actress, Vivien Leigh, with whom he had been carrying on an affair for almost two years.

In those days, such a romance was a true scandal, and the two were warned it could ruin their careers. They went to Hollywood, where they made a show of living separately-Olivier to play Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights,” and Leigh to pursue the part of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.”

Olivier and Leigh were married in 1940. The last years of the marriage were a formality, according to Olivier, as Leigh’s decline into manic depression overwhelmed them. But for a time they symbolized everything glamorous and romantic about show business, and collaborated in many productions.

Olivier and Leigh’s first joint production (aside from a week’s run of “Hamlet” in Denmark in which she played Ophelia) was “Romeo and Juliet,” on which they risked and lost most of the money they had earned in Hollywood. Called by one wag “Jumpeo and Juliet,” it played San Francisco and several other American cities before opening in New York. There the reviews were so bad that people lined up outside the box office the next day to get their money back for tickets they’d already bought. Olivier ordered that the refunds be made, a gesture he could ill afford.

The two also made a film together, “That Hamilton Woman,” directed by Alexander Korda as part of a propaganda effort designed to make the United States more sympathetic to the British cause in World War II. At the same time Olivier got his pilot’s license, which he was told would be the only way he could get into the armed services at the age of 34. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve on his return to Britain.

Although he saw himself as “a decent pilot,” others remembered his tendency to collide with other planes on the runway. He wrecked three planes during his training alone. Feeling that his assignment was too safe, however, he asked for tougher duty. Instead he was put to use making recruiting speeches and other propaganda, at which he was very successful.

One happy result was the film of “Henry V” in 1944, which Kenneth Tynan called “… the first true work of art that had ever been put on film.” Conceived as a patriotic effort, the film took 18 months to complete, with the Battle of Agincourt taking six weeks of that. Olivier commanded an army of 700 extras, and as director and primary actor oversaw every aspect of the film, for which he received a special Oscar.

Because of an agreement with the film’s producer that he would not appear in another movie for two years, Olivier returned to the stage in a partnership with Richardson and director John Burrell to rebuild the bomb-damaged Old Vic theater and work toward establishing a national theater company. Over the ensuing five years, he performed some of the theater’s most challenging roles, excelling at all of them. For the first time the critics lavished praise on him, and his rank as a classical actor was assured.

The year after “Henry V” he produced another tour de force: a double bill of “Oedipus Rex” and “The Critic,” requiring him in one evening to go from the heights of Greek tragedy to the extreme comedic silliness of a Restoration farce. It was rather like a boxer capturing both the heavyweight and lightweight championships in one night. The critics went beyond superlatives, especially about his Oedipus.

“… Mr. Olivier’s Oedipus is one of those performances in which blood and electricity are somehow mixed. It pulls lightning down from the sky …” wrote John Mason Brown. “In Henry V and Oedipus I have seen the sun rise.”

His next enterprise was the film of “Hamlet,” in which he appeared in the title role and directed. During the filming, Olivier was knighted. At age 40, he was the youngest actor to have been so honored. “Hamlet” won five Oscars, including a Best Actor award for him.

Hard on the heels of these triumphs, he once again had the rug pulled out from under him. While leading an Old Vic tour of Australia in 1948, he and Richardson were ousted from their positions with the theater by a faction that felt the two had been using it to further their own careers.

Olivier began to direct and produce plays independently, including the London premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Leigh. Although she very much wanted the part, the character of the mentally fragile Blanche Dubois apparently amplified her own drift into mental illness.

In 1950 Olivier produced “Venus Observed,” which was a success, and then returned to Hollywood for the first time in nine years, to play the male lead in “Sister Carrie.” Leigh was cast as Blanche in the movie version of “Streetcar.”

The following year the couple mounted a double production, Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.” Despite critical complaints of showboating, the productions were successful in both London and New York.

The film of “Richard III,” which he produced, directed and starred in in 1954, proved once again his great gift for transferring Shakespeare to the screen. “I adored every moment of the picture’s making and have always felt quite happy about the result-with the exception of one pretty important element-the battle sequence,” he wrote later. The battle sequence, he said, was “littered with petty larcenies.”

He followed this with a year of classical roles in Stratford-upon-Avon: a second try at “Macbeth,” the king in “Titus Andronicus” and Malvolio in “Twelfth Night,” directed by Gielgud and costarring Leigh. Of the three parts, “Titus” brought him the most plaudits. Kenneth Tynan was moved to call him then “the greatest actor alive.”

Having reaffirmed his place in the classical theater, he decided to do something completely new: to direct a contemporary movie and star in it with a most contemporary actress, Marilyn Monroe. Although the combination made for great headlines, it was a disaster.

In 1956 he joined the board of the fledgling National Theatre, at that point an idea in search of a home. It was 1963 when the theater opened. In the interim, Olivier’s life again changed radically: His marriage to Leigh clashed to a close, he embraced the new wave of drama then swelling in England, he met and married Joan Plowright and started a family with her, and headed another new theater at Chichester, England. He also turned in some memorable performances: a revival of “Coriolanus” in 1959 and Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

Also in 1959 he made “Spartacus,” the first of several big-budget spectaculars that exposed him to a new audience. He also tried another modern dramatist, Eugene Ionesco, in “Rhinoceros.” That was followed by “Becket,” costarring Anthony Quinn. He married Plowright in 1961 in Wilton, Conn., with Richard Burton as best man.

The National Theatre of Great Britain opened in 1963 with Peter O’Toole in “Hamlet,” directed by Olivier. The opening was a major event in British theater history; the National continues to maintain its place as a major company, now performing in three theaters-one of them named the Olivier.

Before he was ousted in 1973 and replaced by Peter Hall, Olivier and co-directors John Dexter and William Gaskill produced show after show that set standards of excellence. Although dedicated to the repertory concept, with productions rotating every few nights and a group of actors known more for ensemble playing that individual fame, Olivier knew that stars help the box office and employed many acting greats, in addition to playing many roles himself. Some of his best roles, including “Othello” (1964), “The Merchant of Venice” (1970), and James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” (1973) were played on the National stage.

Although the National sold out regularly, Olivier was often criticized during his tenure for hiring stars, for promoting Plowright, for choosing obscure plays and for not acting often enough himself. Most of these complaints he expected and took in stride.

One reason he acted less onstage and more often in movies was to earn money that the publicly funded National could not provide. Another reason was that, starting with a production of “The Master Builder” in 1964, he had trouble remembering lines and would suddenly go blank onstage, a torment that ended only after five years. During that period he did only four plays, but did nine films, finding the demands of memory less taxing in that medium.

It wasn’t until “The Merchant of Venice” in 1970 that this stage fright finally left him, for no particular reason that he could determine. `His worst crisis at the National, however, came with the 1967 decision to produce “Soldiers,” a play by Rolf Hochhuth in which Winston Churchill is portrayed as having planned the death of General Sikorski, the Polish leader who was a British ally. The debate quickly turned into a question of censorship and artistic control that became what Olivier called a “moral conflagration” that soured his relationship with the governing board of the theater.

In March 1972, he was further wounded when-according to his version of events-he was abruptly given six months’ notice and told that his successor would be Peter Hall.

Olivier went on to spend his remaining years acting in movies and public television productions such as the successful “Brideshead Revisited” and his superb “King Lear.” His last stage role, in “The Party” in 1973, included one 20-minute speech that he spent four months memorizing. Hs last production for the National was “Eden’s End,” in which he directed his wife.

In the 1970s and 1980s he appeared in such films as “The Clash of the Titans,” “A Little Romance,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Jazz Singer,” “Dracula” and “The Jigsaw Man,” as well as television productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Come Back Little Sheba” and “A Voyage Round My Father.”

In a television interview in 1980, when he was 73, he said that the reason he kept making films was that he could not bear to stop working. “… I desperately want to keep going,” he said. “Not to the world, or anything like that, so that they shall see the glory of my art, or anything as nonsensical as that… . I cannot do without work… . When I have to stop acting because I can’t remember the lines, or my voice is gone, or … I can’t walk anymore, I can’t twitch my face around anymore, I can’t stop my face twitching around anymore, which is more difficult. … If nature forces me to retire, well, then I’ll have to stop working, but until that happens, I feel I must not waste a second.”


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