It’s difficult to be objective about big artistic names, so it’s good when you can admire them unaware. I once heard a song called “Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, not expecting much, was surprised by how good it was. I didn’t know then that it was by the Beatles. I was pleased when I found out, because I knew I had judged them on their merits, not on their big name.
Something similar happened to me with Laurence Olivier (1907-89). I was watching Spartacus (1960) and was struck by the skill of an actor playing a Roman general. Kirk Douglas is fun to watch, but the other actor was on a different plane. I had no idea who it was, so I watched for the name in the credits. And there it was: Laurence Olivier. Again, I was pleased when I found out and for the same reason. Olivier really was as good as he was said to be. And it’s almost frightening to think that Spartacus isn’t one of his best performances in what wasn’t his best medium:
Orson Welles remarked that Olivier was the master of technique and that, if screen acting depended only on technique, he would have been supreme master of the medium. “And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of the electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the cinema seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper – who knew nothing of technique at all?” He might equally have cited Marilyn Monroe; a woman who barely knew what acting was yet who, twenty years later, was to outshine Olivier in every scene [of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)]. (ch. 3, “Breakthrough”, pg. 52)
Why does the camera love some people and not others? It’s a mystery. But so is acting in general. Those who witnessed Olivier play Othello at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s heard the “hum of mighty workings”:
Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Desdemona from Maggie Smith. “It was like being on stage with a Force Ten gale,” she said. He himself realized he was achieving something altogether extraordinary, which he could scarcely comprehend. One night, when he had given a particularly spectacular performance, the cast applauded him at curtain call. He retreated in silence to his dressing room. “What’s the matter, Larry?” asked another actor. “Don’t you know you were brilliant?” “Of course I fucking know it,” Olivier replied, “but I don’t know why.” (ch. 19, “The National: Act Three”, pg. 284)
The pagans might have explained it as literal inspiration – entrance of a spirit – by something divine. In other roles, perhaps Olivier was the medium for something diabolic:
Olivier had concluded from the start that the relish with which Richard III gloats over his villainy was always going to contain something of the ridiculous … But though his [performance] raised many laughs, they were uneasy laughs; it was Olivier’s achievement to be at the same time ridiculous and infinitely menacing. Never for a instant did the audience forget that it was in the presence of unadulterated evil. (ch. 8, “The Old Vic”, pg. 129)
The critic Melvyn Bragg suggested that Olivier’s initial “reluctance to take on the role” was from the fear that it might permanently affect his psyche. If it was, Olivier overcame his fear. But he often did that: he was courageous not just in the parts he chose but in the physical risks he took with leaps, jumps and falls. For Olivier, acting was a sport, not just an art and craft. He tried to master every aspect of the profession, from performance to direction, from voice-projection to make-up.
The photographs reveal how good he was at make-up and the facial control that complements it: it’s remarkable how different he looks from role to role. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize him, which helps explain why Ziegler chose to begin the book with these two quotes:
“I can add colours to the chameleon;
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;
And set the murderous Machievel to school…”
Henry VI, Part Three.
“Rot them for a couple of rogues.
They have everyone’s face but their own.”
Thomas Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote.
But there was almost more make-up than man for Olivier’s leading role in one production of Macbeth, which prompted Vivien Leigh to say: “Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” The French director Michel Saint-Denis was the guilty party: “a fine director with a wonderful imagination”, said Olivier, “but he let his imagination run amok” (ch. 4, “Birth of a Classical Actor”, pg. 66).
Another guilty party isn’t named: the person responsible for putting a shot from The Entertainer (1960) on the back cover of the book. Olivier is in make-up as the failed and fading comedian Archie Rice. He doesn’t look good and it wasn’t his biggest or best role. But he did say it was his “best part”, according to Ziegler (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 321). He presumably meant the most interesting or challenging to play, but perhaps he was joking at his own expense. He often did that:
The graft [for playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night] was almost too much. Derek Granger at one point asked him whether he was enjoying the part. “Crazy wife, drunken old ham actor, don’t you think it’s just a little near the bone?” Olivier replied. “Some of us have lived a little, boysie.” (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 331)
The “crazy wife” was the beautiful but unbalanced Vivien Leigh, whom Ziegler treats sympathetically but objectively. She was Olivier’s second wife and she does seem to bear the chief blame for the breakdown of their marriage. But not all of it, although when Olivier divorced her and married Joan Plowright, he didn’t stop his philandering. His “phil” never included “andros”, according to Ziegler, who says that Olivier didn’t have an affair with Danny Kaye, as other biographers have alleged:
[Olivier] could be extremely camp; he was by instinct tactile, quick to lay an affectionate arm around the shoulder of another man or woman; his epistolary style, even by luvvie standards, was extravagant – “Darling boy,” he began a letter to David Niven, ending with “All my love dearest friend in the world, your devoted Larry.” Nobody who knew him well, however, can have doubted that he loved women, lusted after women and would have considered a sexual relationship with another man a pitiful substitute for the real thing. (ch. 11, “Life Without the Old Vic”, pp. 166-5)
That’s Olivier as amorist; more interesting is Olivier as genius. It’s not as easy to judge genius in the arts as it is in mathematics or the sciences, but Olivier definitely had something extraordinary. The key to it lay inside a box of bone he is shown cradling to his cheek as Hamlet in one of the photographs. That was Yorick’s empty skull; in life, Olivier’s skull must have contained a very powerful and unusual brain. He wasn’t widely read or wide-ranging in his interests, but his memory was prodigious, his will adamantine and he could inhabit a staggering variety of roles, from Romeo to Toby Belch, from Uncle Vanya to Julius Caesar, from camp comedians to Nazi dentists.
If you’re looking for an explanation of his genius, I think there’s something significant in his ancestry, which was Huguenot on his father’s side. Olivier was a patriotic Briton, but his charisma wasn’t purely British. Ziegler dissects his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Brits Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who were great actors too. But they didn’t act with Olivier’s flash, swagger and fire. I also wonder about much more ancient genetics: Olivier looks elegantly handsome in some photos, but ape-ish in a few others, and before his hair was “refashioned”, a director said that it made him look “bad-tempered, almost Neanderthal” (ch. 2, “Apprentice Days”, pp. 33-4). That was decades before it was proved that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The genes we acquired then may have conferred some cognitive or psychological advantage: Neanderthals had inhabited the colder and more demanding environment of Europe for many thousands of years by then.
If those acquired genes were expressed more strongly than average in Laurence Olivier, perhaps they helped him become one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I also wonder whether acting extends to olfaction: can great actors control their pheromones as they control their faces, voices and gestures? If so, perhaps that helps explain why Olivier didn’t manage to reproduce on camera what he did during extended sessions on stage. I’ve not finished this book, because I got bored with the minutiae of Olivier’s later career and want to see more of what he left on film before I try it again. But it’s full of interesting stories and ideas and it’s already helped me better understand and appreciate acting and the theatre.