O is for Olivier
I am not old enough to have seen Laurence Olivier in his prime, and I never saw him on stage. I knew who he was, of course – as an elderly statesman of acting, he loomed large. I think the first time I ever saw him act was either as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, or as the family patriarch in Brideshead Revisited or as one of the many “guest stars” in Jesus of Nazareth.
I know that I saw Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil around the same time (both films seemed to be on telly a lot in the Eighties), so I got to see him play a Nazi and a Nazi-hunter.
Then there was the Spitting Image puppet.
I didn’t see any of his Shakespeare adaptations until I was in college, which was when I also watched his legendary television performance in King Lear (the production was made famous when word came out that on the first day of rehearsal, the other actors were still getting warmed up and feeling their way into their roles, but Olivier was full on as Lear as if it was opening night at the Old Vic).
But young Olivier – handsome, exceedingly well-spoken, charming (and occasionally not) – is something to behold, even if some of the films are only so-so. He had several disappointments and false starts in Hollywood before he found success.
He was a forceful Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, a surly Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, a proud Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, a gruff Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.
And then there were the interpretations of Shakespeare.
Henry V was a piece of war propaganda, brilliantly realised by Olivier: producer, director and star (he won a special Oscar for it).
Hamlet – crisply filmed in black and white, while impressive, still does not quite hold up (as is often the case with famous versions of the play, he was simply too old to be the student prince). Although at least he made an effort to make the play a film.
He won raves for his performance as the hunchbacked monarch Richard III.
He donned blackface as Othello in a film that was part movie, part play: “an experiment in motion picture entertainment”
Not all of his performances, though, were perfect, in spite of the raves he was winning from critics and fellow actors (Spencer Tracy regarded him as ‘the best there ever was’ – ironically, Olivier said he learned all he knew about screen acting from observing Tracy).
There was the mess with Marilyn Monroe, The Prince and the Showgirl, and in his early days in Hollywood he was fired from Queen Christina because he couldn’t hold the screen with Greta Garbo. As “the most distinguished actor of our age” he often took cameo roles or small parts in grand spectacles and junk movies, perhaps for the money, or perhaps just to try out different accents.
Throughout his career he alternated between the screen and the stage, often repeating roles in front of the camera that he had originated in the theatre.
He could be a god.
Or an old goat.
Or a highwayman
Or another old Nazi.
Or a lover of perverse games.
Or a Roman senator who likes both oysters and snails.