Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Centennial Tributes: Laurence Olivier

"I take a simple view of living. It is keep your eyes open and get on with it."
Lord Laurence Olivier

By Edward Copeland
Lord Laurence Olivier was often referred to as one of the all-time greats on stage and I wish I could have seen him perform in that capacity. He co-founded with Sir Ralph Richardson a new Old Vic Theatre Company in 1944. Later, he was one of the founders of the Royal National Theatre in 1963. He retired from the stage in 1974. He also was the fifth actor to be given the honor of burial in Westminster Abbey. Despite his legendary status as a stage actor and appearing frequently on Broadway between 1929 and 1961 and directing two productions after that, he only received a single Tony nomination for acting (for The Entertainer in 1958) and he lost. As it is, myself and many others have had to make do with his admittedly massive body of screen and television work, work which the actor often expressed embarrassment about, understandable when you consider some of the roles he took, presumably just for the paycheck.

Really, Olivier is the one who inspired me to use my running gag "All British actors are whores." That's not to say he wasn't great, but it did often exemplify itself in his seeming willingness to appear in just about anything that passed his way. At the same time, he did manage for a long time to hold the record for acting Oscar nominations among men with 10 nominations until Jack Nicholson tied him with his nomination for A Few Good Men and passed him with his nomination for As Good As It Gets. Instead of just going chronologically through his works that I've seen, I've decided to divide this tribute into four acts.

Act I: The Oscar Nominations

"My stage successes have provided me with the greatest moments outside myself; my film successes the best moments, professionally, within myself."

Olivier's first Oscar nomination came in 1939 for the film which really put him on the map as far as movies were concerned, Wuthering Heights. Really it is one of the few times he played an almost purely romantic role on film, seeming to slip into more character-type parts almost immediately afterward. Still, his Heathcliff can make hearts flutter to this very day. in 1940, he scored his second consecutive nomination as best actor and worked with the legendary Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca, the only Hitchcock film to win best picture, even though Hitch failed to pick up director. Olivier's Max de Winter perfectly blended mystery as to what his character may or may not have done to his previous wife with enough appeal to understand why Joan Fontaine's unnamed second wife would fall for the rich and eccentric man living in the wondrous estate of Manderley with the housekeeper from hell, even if his marriage proposal was vague enough that he had to add, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool." As World War II preoccupied most of England, Olivier originally joined the actual war effort until given a pass to lend more support through the arts and so his next Oscar nomination came in 1946 with Henry V, which also marked Olivier's first outing as a film director. Shakespeare's tale of the English king and his battles was transformed into a rousing morale boost for British moviegoers when it debuted there in 1944, though it didn't land in the states until two years later. He didn't win as actor, but the Academy bestowed an honorary Oscar to him for his work as actor, director and producer in bringing Henry V to the screen. Two years later, Olivier returned to the best actor ranks in another Shakespeare adaptation, Hamlet, and this time he earned a directing nomination as well. Perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play and certainly the most famous role for any actor interested in the Bard, Hamlet earned Olivier the prize for best actor and won best picture as well, though Olivier lost director to John Huston for Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His Hamlet, as was his Henry V, is very good, but for me he approaches the roles as if the words might break, a tendency I see too often in Shakespearean turns. I wonder if his Shakespearean performances would play differently for me if I saw them on the stage. It was five years until Olivier's next best actor nomination and once again it came from Shakespeare and in a film he directed. This time, Olivier sank his teeth into the great villain that is Richard III and to me, it plays as his first truly great Shakespearean role on film, though I still prefer Ian McKellen's Richard III both in terms of performance and as a film. In 1960, Olivier made it into the best actor finals again, this time for repeating his stage triumph as Archie Rice in Tony Richardson's film of The Entertainer, also notable for his first film teaming with his third and final wife, Joan Plowright. For me, of all the Olivier film performances I've seen, Archie Rice remains the best. His next nomination returned him to Shakespeare again, this time for a film he didn't direct. His Othello is jarring at first, when he enters the film in blackface using a gait that's reminiscent of Antonio Fargas as Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch. Once you get past that though (and the makeup is good), it turns out to be his best Shakespearean performance on film yet. It's fascinating, because you see that the older Olivier got and the longer he worked with the Bard's words, the better he got at it. His movie Hamlet was better than his Henry V and his Richard III bested Hamlet, but Othello beats them all (and wait until we get to his King Lear on TV). The supporting cast is a mixed bag. I didn't care much for Frank Finlay's Iago and after decades of enjoying the steel and wit of many a Maggie Smith performance, it seems weird to see her as frail Desdemona, but then again it beats Julia Stiles any day. His next nomination in 1972 came for his acting duel with Michael Caine in Sleuth, but imagine for a moment how the movie world would have been different if Olivier's health had been better in the 1970s. In his DVD commentary on The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola admits that he had two choices for Don Vito: Brando and Olivier, but Olivier's health forced him to decline, though the studio would have preferred him. Four years later, his next nomination came for the first time in the supporting category for his superb turn as the Nazi-in-hiding Christian Szell in Marathon Man, a chilling portrayal that heightened fear of the dentist as much as Jaws did for swimming in the ocean. Two years later, he went from the hunted to the hunter with his final Oscar-nominated performance as the Nazi hunter seeking to stop Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) and his plot to clone little Hitlers in The Boys From Brazil. Though, as if they wanted to make sure he got a little something, the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar the same night.

Act II: The Emmys

"I believe in the theater. I believe in it as the first glamorizer of thoughts. It restores dramatic dynamics and their relations to life size."

Olivier won five Emmys for his acting work on television and two of those wins were for performances that probably come closest to approximating what it would have been like to see him on the stage. I was unable to see his first win for a 1960 special of The Moon and Sixpence or his 1975 win for Love Among the Ruins, which paired him with Katharine Hepburn. I did see his 1973 win for a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and I must say he was great as the elder Tyrone, the tired actor not nearly as great as he wanted to be nor that he thought he was. The production itself is as flawed as the 1962 film version starring Katharine Hepburn and none of the other cast members really soar the way Olivier did. I also saw his winning performance in the 1982 British miniseries Brideshead Revisited, whose reputation far exceeds the production's actual worth. Olivier only appeared in two of the 11 laborious chapters and I was sort of surprised as it unfolded that he beat the far-more interesting work by John Gielgud — until I saw the episode Olivier won for, which happened to be the final installment. His performance overpowers the entire episode (thank goodness something did) as a family's dying patriarch. The finest television work I saw him give (and the best Shakespeare I've seen him perform) was his final win for a 1984 production of King Lear. Watching Olivier as the troubled monarch who can't tell his good children from his bad was a joy to behold, despite Gordon Crosse's overbearing musical score, and he truly does the mad scene justice. I once saw a stage production of King Lear and during an intermission, an audience member commented that what Lear really needed was a good estate planner, but what the play really needs is a great Lear and Olivier provided that.

Act III: Other Notable Films

"I don't know what is better than the work that is given to the actor, to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself."

Olivier also appeared in many other notable films, some of which attracted award attention, even if not for him. The same year he made Rebecca, he also played Mr. Darcy in the great 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, even if Greer Garson was too old for her part. The next year, he appeared in the great Powell-Pressburger film 49th Parallel aka The Invaders, as well as perhaps his best collaboration with second wife Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman. You know, it's always odd to hear Leigh act with her own British accent. Another film worth checking out is William Wyler's 1952 film Carrie, one of Jennifer Jones' best efforts as a girl looking for success in the big city of Chicago but running into a spate of bad luck and falling for a married restaurant manager (Olivier). Also, it goes without saying that anyone would be remiss if they missed Olivier's campy turn as Crassus in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. Kubrick basically disowned the film, but it's still worth seeing, if only for the ridiculous amount of innuendo in the scenes between Olivier and Tony Curtis.

Act IV: The Paychecks

"Without acting, I cannot breathe."

For most of the 1970s until the end of his life, Olivier battled many illnesses and I have to hope that they explain some of the motivation. Sometimes, the roles worked out in spite of themselves (I can't imagine that he expected that his fine turn in A Little Romance or the movie itself would turn out as well they did.) Other times, they turned out to be a campy treat in spite of themselves such as his role as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, which also contained a fun turn by fellow Brit Maggie Smith as the devious Thetis. However, other times things didn't turn out nearly so well and Olivier's work turned out campy and over-the-top in movies that ranged from the dull 1979 Dracula where he hammed it up as Van Helsing to the disaster that was Neil Diamond's version of The Jazz Singer where Lord Olivier took the role of the singer's cantor father intoning, "I haf no son." Then there is something that goes beyond the pale in putridness, his role as an American auto magnate (with an awful American accent in the soapy adaptation of Harold Robbins' potboiler The Betsy. The Betsy also proved that it's not just Brits that need paychecks, because I can see no other explanation for the presence of great American actors such as Robert Duvall, Jane Alexander, Tommy Lee Jones and Edward Herrmann in this 1978 lemon. Fortunately, I never saw Olivier take on the role of Douglas MacArthur in the fabled big-budget monstrosity Inchon, most notable for being financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church (better known as "Moonies") and owner of The Washington Times newspaper. Hell, death hasn't even stopped Olivier who, through the creepy magic of CGI, turned up as the villain in 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, released 15 years after his death.

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I remember reading that once the producers signed Olivier to star in The Betsy, everyone else hopped on board for the opportunity to work with Lord Larry.
Of course, Duvall has taken a lot of questionable roles himself too over the decades. Maybe there is a bit of Brit in him as well.
I guess Gene Hackman's British too, considering that he used to be in everything. The only funny joke in PCU is the kid doing the thesis on being able to turn on the TV at any time and finding a movie featuring Michael Caine or Gene Hackman.

It took me 25 years to see A Little Romance, and I was happy I did. It's such a sweet little movie, and still Diane Lane's best performance. I agree that Olivier probably didn't think it would turn out as well as it did.

There are plenty of actors who occasionally attended the Olivier-Steiger School of Scenery Chewing for Checks. John Malkovich is notorious for this. He might be their valedictorian.

Re: The Betsy. Harold Robbins novels always make bad movies...because they're terrible! Jesus would give a bad performance if faced with a script from one of Robbins' novels.
Wagstaff and I had a running gag in the late 1980s, early 1990s that if we ever made a movie, we could probably get Caine to be in it if we offered him $50 and cab fare.
PCU is justified by that Caine/Hackman apercu. (Did you know it was a satire of Wesleyan U and its film program?) But back to Olivier: Many say that, like most Brits, was great at acting from the neck up, yet I think as Heathcliff, as Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman and as Hurstwood in Carrie his body language is most eloquent. The difference between Heatcliff the dashing young romantic and Heathcliff the monolith speaks volumes -- as does the difference between the young, vibrant Nelson and the wounded officer, likewise the courting Hurstwood and the man jilted by Carrie. Sigh.
p.s.: would you care to comment on my essay on John Wayne's centenary -- blogspot to link here http://blogs.phillynews.com/inquirer/flickgrrl/ ??
One of my favorite Olivier performances came for his wry turn as General Burgoyne in 1959's The Devil's Disciple, which is sadly very hard to come by these days. Apart from that, all of his great works are present and accounted for. Having recently revisted Othello for the first time in over a decade, I was surprised by how well the performance held up. The film itself is a bit stagy for my taste - indeed, it's basically just a filmed version of what began as a stage production at Britain's National Theater - but I do think Olivier's interpretation of the role is the best screen Othello of those I've seen. What did you think of That Hamilton Woman, apart from finding Leigh's accent jarring? I don't think it quite lives up to its exalted reputation, although both actors (and her in particular) are very good in it.
I beg to differ with you, Josh. The screenplay is beautiful, the performances flawless. On New Year's Eve 1799 when Nelson kisses Lady Hamilton on the terrace of a villa in Naples and says, "There, I've kissed you across two centuries," I melt. And when she's done reciting her history with Nelson and the rummy asks her, "What happend then? What happened after?" Her response is devastating. I also like the bit of theatrical symbolism the film indulges ijn when she's told of Nelson's death. I think Leigh tried very hard to affect a Cockney-goes-upperclass accent and it is intentionally jarring.
Edward, you can see The Moon and Sixpence at the Museum of Television & Radio. There is more good Olivier television than what you list, including his own Laurence Olivier Presents series for Granda, where he did Pinter's The Collection (1976) with Malcom McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Alan Bates; Voyage Round My Father, John Mortimer's memoir; and Uncle Vanya, from the Chichester Theatre production for NET Playhouse. And his commercial of Polaroid in 1973.
When I said jarring, I meant just because I'm more used to hearing her with her Southern accents, so hearing something closer to how she really spoke is always a bit of a surprise. I thought she was very good, but the movie was a mixed bag.
Much as I like some films by Olivier ("Henry V") or with Olivier ("Sleuth"), I can't bring myself to love him.

At a time when he was considered the king of the British Stage, he did something that a real regal monarch shouldn't do: trip someone just because he's good, too.

The moment: around 1951-52. The Festival of Britain is being celebrated with assorted cultural acts. Charles Laughton comes acting and directing in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's little represented third act of "man and Superman".
Olivier manoeuvred so the play wasn't seen in London, to favour a production of the full play by his friend john Clements. The avowed reason was to avoid Laughton's production to harm tehe run of Clements' . Also Olivier considered Clements a more loyal Briton than Laughton and thusly more worthy of being favoured.

But then Laughton's play was only for a short season, and Clements meant to run a whole year... I think that London stage goers would have appreciated the chance of seeing both versions (which were very different in style, anyway).

Laughton was considered then (and longer afterwards until Simon Callow bravely vindicated his work) by the powers that-be in the British stage as someone who had sold his talent to films, and worse still, to American films (he NEVER was knighted). It is an irony that those who criticised more loudly would later sell themselves much more cheaply.

Luckily for Laughton, he gave his best to films: and that upholds his reputation years after his death...
re Spartacus. Ustinov & Laughton couldn't stand him. I'd like to know the background of that.
O. directed Laughton in something, I think.
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