by David Niven
Modern Screen, July 1947
I’ve seen Laurence Olivier play Richard the Third, King Lear, and Oedipus, which critics have labeled the finest acting of our times. But the most exciting performance I ever saw Larry give, took place in my own house one night when I watched him carve a roast goose.
It was during the war in England. I was stationed with my family near Windsor, about ten miles from Denham, where Larry and Viv lived while Larry produced his film masterpiece, Henry V.
The goose was pure manna from Heaven. It arrived one day as a gift from relatives in Scotland. I immediately invited the Oliviers to dinner–but unfortunately I didn’t stop there. In no time, I had twenty eager acceptances for a feast. When my wife took the goose from the oven, I almost fainted. It had shrunken sadly. Four hungry people, I realized, could murder that bird with ease. Larry saw the dismay on my face.
“What’s the matter, old boy?” he asked calmly. I explained.
“Let me carve,” suggested Larry. I handed him the knife and in no time the bones were sliced neatly bare and twenty plates were heaping with goose. I have no idea how he did it. But if there’s been a greater commissary miracle since Moses I don’t know what is!
Another time, I saw Larry conquer another awkward situation–with a different sort of bird–by sheer force of personality and talent.
It was during the war, too, down at Aldershot, where thousands of British soldiers trained. One night he took a dramatic company to the stronghold of the British Tommy. Larry was a Navy man and so were his players. To make matters worse, they were dressed as British soldiers. He was greeted with the English version of the Bronx Cheer, and believe me, a “bird” is just as loud and devastating in Britain as it is in the good old USA.
Larry paid no attention to the raucous Army razz for the Navy–because that’s what it was. He went on with the scene and pretty soon you didn’t hear any razzes. In fact, pretty soon you could have heard a pin drop. When it was over the roof shuddered with the ovation he got.
It’s not my purpose here to estimate Laurence Olivier’s stature as an actor. He has London and Paris and New York at his feet with his marvelous Old Vic company. He produced, directed, and starred in Henry V, which some people think is the greatest film ever produced. He came up this year for an Academy Award. All in all, Laurence Olivier is quite a boy. I’ve learned to admire him, though for other things, too.
We were together the day England declared war. I remember Larry saying, “There must be something I can do.”
I couldn’t tell him what it was. No one could. But I think the decision he made required and extra amount of courage. While he was finishing his Hollywood job and clearing up his affairs, he took flying lessons out in San Fernando Valley, every spare minute he had, at his own expense, to make himself valuable in a war. He was thirty-six then, well over age for combat flying. He knew he faced a tedious war service even if he did pass the tests.
I’ve been rattling on quite a bit about Larry–but I don’t want to give the impression that he’s the whole show in the famous Leigh-Olivier team.
On the stage and in person, Larry and Vivien compliment each other like tea and cake. Matter of fact, their careers have travelled along side by side for years. They met when Larry took a Shakespeare company to Denmark to play Hamlet in the original castle of Elsinore. Vivien played Ophelia, his luckless sweetheart. When he came to Hollywood to make Wuthering Heights, Viv traveled to New York with a Shakespearean company. She flew to Hollywood to see Larry.
I had never met Vivien Leigh until the day she walked on our set, but I’ve never changed my instant impression that she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Myron Selznick, Larry’s Hollywood agent, whisked Vivien straight over to his brother, David, and the great search for Scarlett O’Hara was over.
As I said, Vivien Leigh is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen outside an art gallery, and remember, I’ve seen her in dusty jodhpurs, slacks, in a kitchen dress. In person, she’s dainty, speaks quietly and moves gracefully. With Larry’s restless stride, his shoulders always hunched as if he’s wearing armor, they make an amazing looking couple wherever they are.
No pair is gayer, more eternally bubbling with wit, fun and life than the Oliviers. I’ve heard Viv, many a time, discussing some world-shaking question with a British peer or government big shot, and right in the middle of a conversation slay him absolutely by saying, “Oh, but that’s all absolute rot, you know.”
I met Larry Olivier first years ago. Ann Todd took me backstage when I was just out of Sandhurst and introduced me. Larry was in a London play then, a flop, but it didn’t keep him from being completely charming. I had no idea of acting at that time, but Larry made an indelible impression on me, and when a freak of fate later landed me in Hollywood and set me to making faces myself, he immediately became my ideal as an actor. In between, I saw Larry only once in new York, when I called him up to sell him some whiskey, and instead he gave me some. The next time we met was while making Wuthering Heights together in Hollywood. I had to cry over Merle Oberon’s body in the death scene, and I couldn’t for the life of me.
They brought out the glycerin blower, and at last I shed floods of tears over poor Merle, prone on the bier. Larry was amused. He still insists that what came out of my eyes was not tears at all but scotch whiskey.
Viv is a marvelous hostess; both she and Larry are experts about food and especially wines. They’ve made a hobby of wines, know all the vintages, bottling, shipping dates and everything.
Since the war they’ve kept a cottage in Chelsea, the artists’ section of London. Most gala evenings at Larry and Viv’s, I remember, usually wound up around 3 am, with Viv on the piano and Larry singing the whole of Handel’s “Messiah”–his prime musical feat. It’s long and, the way he sings it, frightfully noisy. They love card games of all descriptions, and Vivien is absolutely crazy about those twenty-question quiz books, probably because she always wins. But often the evening resolves itself into just sparkling conversation, at which the Oliviers excel.
They work hard at hobbies on top of all their stage and screen work. The main one they share is collecting old furniture and paintings, although how they manage their collection I’ll never know. Larry and Viv are supremely generous. Vivien has sent my David a first edition on every birthday, so he’ll have a valuable library when he grows up. I once made the mistake of admiring a painting of Larry’s, and he handed it to me. I wouldn’t take it, of course–it was worth thousands–but that’s the sort of chap he is.
Money means absolutely nothing to that pair. The play’s the thing, frankly, and what Larry has accomplished as guiding genius of the Old Vic is, I’m sure, the proudest feat of his life–despite the fact that it has brought him nothing of the riches his talent could command in Hollywood.
Recently, when he’d finished his Old Vic engagement in New York and hopped off from Newfoundland for England, his plane, you’ll remember, lost an engine in mid-air and cracked up. Garson Kanin, one of his best friends, heard of the accident in New York. He called Larry promptly to ask if he and Viv were okay.
“We’re quite all right, thanks” Larry told him. “And I’m awfully glad you called me. I couldn’t possibly have called you.” Garson asked how come. “The toll’s $18,” Larry explained, “and I haven’t the price.”
One masterpiece at a time…
Both Larry and Viv are impatient with anything short of perfection, in everything. I have a producer friend in Hollywood who pesters me constantly to get them to read a movie scenario. I’ve sent them several scripts but they always come back, unread, with a note of explanation from Larry. “If I read it, I might life it and want to do it. Then I’d take my attention away from what I’m doing. That wouldn’t be fair. Wait until this is over.” That’s how conscientious he is when he works.
However, Larry has at least some Philistine learnings. For instance, he has a weakness for joining clubs. He never goes in one, just joins, buys the club tie and pays the dues. The harder they are to join, the more tempting they are to Larry.
I belonged to an ultra-conservative West End Club which Larry yearned to join. I boosted his stock pretty thoroughly with the members, stressing the fact that he was an officer with the Navy, from a family who traced back to the Norman conquest and all that rot. I finally wrangled an introduction for Larry with the committee, who were about as familiar with the stage at they were with Timbuktu.
The interrogator was Lord So-and-So. He fixed a cold eye on Larry. “Tell me, Oliver,” (he called him Oliver) he said, “Are you at the Admiralty?”
Larry never flicked an eyelash. “Oh no,” he replied. “I’m at the Garrick!” That was the theatre he was playing, but the old boy never got it! And now Larry’s a member in good standing!
Although he works night and day, Larry enjoys the solid health of an ox. He has practically no dissipating vices–except work. They bought Notley Abbey, a Fifteenth Century manor house in lovely Oxfordshire, at the close of the war, and when I last saw them they had great restoration plans–and also enough work to keep them happy for years.
But if anyone thinks either one is going to settle down at Notley and grow gracefully old, they’ve another thing coming about the Oliviers. neither Larry or Vivien will ever give up acting, I’m sure, as long as they can toddle. And that–I’m also sure–will be quite a time yet.