Laurence Olivier was awarded four Oscars
Laurence Olivier was born 100 years ago today, but how have the years affected his reputation? Was he a sublime master of stagecraft or ham cut thick?
By Andrew Walker
A select group gathers today in Westminster Abbey, not to remember a monarch or politician, but to mark the
centenary of the birth of the man widely regarded as the greatest actor of the 20th Century - Laurence Olivier.
The ashes of Lord Olivier, who died in July 1989, are entombed in Poets' Corner, together with literary titans including Chaucer, Dickens and Kipling.
Olivier's remarkable achievements are legion: more than 100 leading stage roles, four Academy Awards, renown as the first director to successfully transfer Shakespeare from the stage to the big screen, he created the UK's National Theatre almost as an act of pure will, seriously damaging his health in the process.
Was Laurence Olivier Britain's greatest ever actor?
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
In an era graced by talents like John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft, it was Olivier who was always the pick of the bunch. But how is his distinctive acting style - overtly physical and defiantly technical - regarded today?
Laurence Olivier, known familiarly as Larry, seemed destined for stardom from his first stage appearance, aged 15, as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the 1922 Stratford Festival.
Another juvenile appearance in A Midsummer Night's Dream brought his first review. "By far the most notable performance was that of Puck," wrote a reviewer at the time. "He seemed to put more 'go' into it than the others, and succeeded in individualising his part.
'Feeling of danger'
"To my mind he was a little too robust and jovial for such a quick-footed, light-fingered person, but... he has a knowledge of acting and a good mastery of technique."
But views of that robust technique remain mixed. The director Jonathan Miller is typically direct: "I hope that no actor tries to copy him."
Others were beguiled. The writer Sir John Mortimer, an avowed Shakespeare junkie who saw the mature Olivier on stage, speaks of an "extraordinary feeling of danger".
"The audience sit on the edge of their seats wondering what the hell he's going to do next," he says.
Graduating to professional acting, he was soon playing leading roles at Birmingham Rep. By the 1930s he was in London, starring in Noel Coward's Private Lives and Romeo and Juliet, where he alternated the lead with Gielgud.
Olivier and Leigh were married for over 20 years
But, even then, Olivier found himself criticised, specifically for his verse speaking which - much to his chagrin - was compared unfavourably to Gielgud's.
"His voice has neither the tone nor the compass," carped one critic. "And his blank verse is the blankest that I have ever heard."
Even so, his performance as Coriolanus was hailed as "a pillar of fire on a plinth of marble".
He moved to Hollywood, where he resisted moves to be renamed Larry Oliver, but enjoyed little initial success.
The turning point came in 1939 when he appeared as Heathcliff in William Wyler's film adaptation of Wuthering Heights opposite Merle Oberon, following this up with the dashing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.
Marriage to Vivien Leigh - star of Gone with the Wind - brought the sort of superstardom accorded to only one other Englishman, Charlie Chaplin. And the 1940s brought unalloyed success. He won an Oscar for his fabulous Henry V, which he also directed.
"As far as I was concerned it was the first Shakespeare film," he recalled. "I needed a style that made the acting look more real... the difficulty being the language, your only hope was for the background to be more unreal than the language, so the language seemed more real."
He followed this triumph with his Oscar-winning Hamlet and Richard III.
The 1950s brought a sea-change in theatre. Out went drawing-room comedies, in came the Angry Young Men. Olivier, too, reinvented himself, throwing his lot in with the radical Royal Court Theatre, stunning audiences with his portrayal of the embittered, washed-up music hall artist, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's The Entertainer.
He advised one young cast member, Joan Plowright, "if you don't like your life, change it". The two married in 1961.
In a letter to her parents, the young Plowright had earlier raved about Michael Redgrave's Hamlet, saying it made Olivier's "beautiful diction, dramatic pauses, loud music and despairing cries sound like pure unadulterated ham".
But, as Gielgud put it in a 1985 interview: "I think in a way he was not altogether sold on the modern theatre, any more than I am."
In 1962, Olivier created the National Theatre, showcasing the best of classical and new theatre, and oversaw its move from London's Old Vic to the South Bank. But seriously ill, he was effectively replaced by Peter Hall from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973. Sensing a coup, Olivier was appalled.
Thinking he was dying, Olivier took on more film projects. Some, like Sleuth, were sublime, while others, most notably The Betsy, were beneath him.
But is Olivier really the greatest? Sir Peter Hall, who directed Olivier in Coriolanus, is not convinced.
"To me the greatest actor was Richardson," he says. "Larry was a great performer. In a way you always knew it was performing. But he was such an extraordinary conjurer that he literally took the audience's breath away. I don't quite think that's acting but, by God, it's performing."
The same criticisms followed him like some bird of ill omen. Olivier was said to be stagey, hammy, affected, overly physical. He lacked emotion, relied on wigs, false teeth and noses. Jonathan Miller who directed Olivier in The Merchant of Venice says, "he started with a lot of make-up, I think he wanted the classical Jewish nose".
Olivier recalled that Miller exhorted him "for God's sake, take that nose off," which he did, in exchange for greater latitude from the director. And Miller calls Olivier's 1964 Othello, for which he blacked up to play the lead, "a condescending view of an Afro Caribbean person".
But, Hall concedes: "Larry could seduce, he could thrill, he could terrify. He was a very shrewd cookie. He wanted to be respectable but he also wanted to be avant garde."
The critic James Agate once queried Olivier's technique. "When I look at a watch it is to see the time, not to admire the mechanism," he wrote.
Olivier's reply was both gracious and honest. "To me acting is a technical problem," he said. "It's also an emotional problem. My only regret is that there have been times when I haven't managed to hide the technique. I think there is justification in the accusation."
And what of the man himself? As Joan Plowright puts it: "There were times when he said 'I don't think I known who I am when I'm not acting'. He wasn't quite sure of that person who was not required to do anything to impress an audience."
Whatever his reputation today, there can be no doubting the genius of Laurence Olivier, his charisma, creativity or insight into the profession of acting which delighted millions of people around the globe for so many years.
Below is a selection of your comments.
In my opinion, the best ever delivery of a character's opening line in Marathon Man. How many different ways can you ask "Is it safe?". Hammy? Maybe a little but stole every scene.
Jezz, St Albans
I believe that I am right in saying that Olivier once said of acting that "It was no profession for an adult" and on another occasion that "acting was the act of making oneself metaphorically naked on stage.." I once saw him interviewed, by Melvin Bragg I think, and when he was asked about how he prepared for a performance he was rather unclear and imprecise in his answer. It struck me then that the real answer to the question was that what he did was a kind of magic - that he never really fully understood what he did exactly. He borrowed from his own emotions and experiences while mixing into the brew his observations of human beings... His acting seems almost like watching a brilliant cook in the kitchen... While some aspects of the recipe are measured precisely other aspects (ingredients) and their respective amounts are added almost instinctually. Rather like with a brilliant painter you can hand two people identical paints and canvases but the brilliant artist will pr! oduce something sublime whereas the journeyman will produce the average, even the mundane... One cannot define genius. All one can say is that one knows it when one sees it.
Paul Harris, Florida, USA
Who has had the breadth of experience and roles that Olivier had? No one. Everyone today is to careful to even try to take on what Olivier did. He was an ACTOR and a fine one.
Carol Wayne, De Soto, Texas, USA
He has many critics but, no matter what, he pushed and completely crossed the old boundaries and standards. He was clinical - yes; he was technical - yes; and he was, always, riveting.
Laura Haker, Orange,CT. USA
I think he was a great actor, but he must be rated below Marlon Brando, who, unquestionably, was the greatest actor of all time, and who invented film acting, (as opposed to acting in a film). The other actor who belongs in this pantheon is Richard Burton, who had the greatest speaking voice ever, even though he was not the greatest actor.
Robert Neuer, New York New York
i can remember my mother taking me to see larry at the new theater in cardiff playing othello , we were in the gods and his voice bounced off the walls , organic surround sound , a couple of weeks ago i saw the boys from brasil on a big screen tv evil just pored out of his eyes great stuff
dave, new orleans
OLIVIER is is indeed a dish best served with egg and chips.
Trying to choose between them (Gielgud, Richardson, Olivier) is like being asked who your favorite composer (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart) is - or your favorite musician (Grumiaux, Casals, Arrau). Watching any one of them - the actors - was/is exalting. Disappearing into a character is, supposedly, the ultimate achievement. No one currently comes close to Gary Oldman. But I've seen The Dresser 12 times - just for the extreme pleasure of watching the incredible artistry of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. And who could pass on Ian McKellan's incomparable Richard III? We are moved by greatness and artistry - it is seeing glimpses of God (whoever That is....) Olivier's "hamming" was better by magnitudes than 99% of what passes for acting. In any era.
Terry Smythe, Portland Oregon USA