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Laurence Olivier: A Biography

A review of a new look at the life and work of one of the 20th century’s most influential actors.

Laurence Olivier: A Biography by Donald Spoto, Harper Collins, New York. 480 pp, $23 cloth.

Laurence Olivier ran, walked, hobbled, shuffled, galloped and sauntered through nearly 100 plays and 60 films in his long career—and that’s not including all the productions he directed. For his very first professional job, at the age of 18 in a music hall curtain-raiser called The Unfailing Instinct, his feet played an important part: Despite repeated warnings from cast and crew to watch out for the old-fashioned raised sill on the door, on his first entrance he tripped and went sprawling. He got a big laugh—one which, according to his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, he never managed to top. But not for lack of trying; his first nursery performances were for his doting mother who died when he was only 12, and he continued to work for the loving acceptance of audiences all his life. Constance Cummings, appearing with Oliver when he played a character based on John Barrymore in the farcical Theatre Royal in 1934, recalled Olivier saying he would gladly break a leg to get a laugh. (As it happened, he did manage to fracture an ankle during the production.)

In the summer of 1933, Oliver’s first unsuccessful trip to Hollywood ended when Greta Garbo dismissed him after a bad screen test. Sulking, Olivier took his first wife, actress Jill Esmond—whose film career was doing nicely, thank you—to Honolulu for a holiday. Olivier broke a toe surfboarding.

He sprained his ankles a few times, once memorably during World War II while filming Henry V in Ireland, when he demonstrated to the local extras how to leap in ambush upon a mounted rider from a tree. But these same ankles managed to support his whole body weight night after night, when in the grand climax of his stage Coriolanus in 1959, Olivier was dangled upside down, like Mussolini. Eventually he tore cartilage in his knee (aggravating an old wound suffered while playing Richard III on tour in Australia years earlier) and was replaced by his understudy, Albert Finney.

Bare feet were key to the development of Olivier’s pantherlike walking style for Othello—one of his most elaborate and hailed characterizations at the National Theatre, which he founded and ran from 1963 to 1974. Crucially, he exploited a “flaw” in the Moor’s character—pride—that had been traditionally neglected in productions where Othello was little more than Iago’s stooge. As he recalls in his windy but fascinating book, On Acting: “Black…I had to be black…I had to look out from a black man’s world…A walk…I needed a walk. I must relax my feet. Get the right balance, not too taut, not too loose…I took off my shoes, then my socks. Barefoot, I felt the movement come to me. Slowly, it came: lithe, dignified, and sensual. Lilting, yet positive.”

Olivier hated his legs, which he thought “spindly” and so disguised them with padding under tights. He tore a calf muscle when, as Macheath in a 1952 film of the The Beggar’s Opera, he leaped onto a gaming table. More spectacularly, his calf was pierced with an arrow during filming of Richard III the next year; Olivier, who was also directing, insisted that the take be completed before the arrow was removed.

In one of his early films, Fire Over England, a costume romance which co-starred Vivien Leigh (his lover but not yet his second wife), Olivier’s habit of bravado on the set was equally dangerous. As Donald Spoto describes it in his new biography:

For a hazardous scene, Olivier insisted on performing his own stunts, as usual, as Vivien stood by, admiring. He was to spring aboard the studio galleon and throw a flaming torch along the oil-soaked floor, leaping over the side of the ship into a safety net below as the deck burst into flames…Olivier jumped and tossed the firebrand, but the flaming oil floated on the water and sped towards him. Making a swift but crooked dive overboard, he landed precariously on the net below, merely wrenching his back instead of breaking his neck or sustaining severe burns. To everyone’s astonishment and against the producer’s wishes, Olivier then insisted on doing numerous retakes.

Mercilessly self-regarding in the manner of all actors, Olivier pronounced: “As a child I was a shrimp, as a youth I was a weed—a miserably thin creature whose arms hung like wires from my shoulders.” At his full height, Olivier was 5′ 10″ and slender; when he played his first Hamlet in 1934, his waistline was 30 inches. In that production, Olivier made his Laertes (Michael Redgrave) very nervous, constantly taking chances in the duelling scene; by the time the production closed, Olivier had chunks of flesh nicked out of his scalp, arms and chest. Directing the film in 1947, Olivier again commanded his Laertes (Terrence Morgan) to lunge forcefully in the duel. Olivier was pierced in the chest and blood spurted, to everyone’s horror—fortunately it was only a flesh wound. Later, while filming Hamlet’s 15-foot leap down upon Claudius, Olivier jumped spread-eagle with such ferocity that the stunt double was knocked unconscious and lost two teeth.

More than any other single role or production, it was Olivier’s film of Henry V that made him a star. It was a stunning piece of wartime propaganda for the British cause, a heroic full-throttle acting job and an astonishingly imaginative piece of filmmaking that also happened to be Olivier’s directing debut. Once, while he was looking through the viewfinder to set up a shot, the (big, new) Technicolor camera fell on Olivier, dislocating his shoulder and tearing open his upper lip. The scar left by the stitches was subsequently often disguised by a moustache.

The actor Michael Gambon, who was a junior player at the National Theatre during Olivier’s tenure, has said: “I love his hands. He had a particular way of holding them, bent at the knuckle.”

Anthony Quinn, appearing with Olivier on Broadway in the 1960 Becket, was startled by his fellow actor’s tongue-loosening exercises backstage.

Olivier’s voice, often described as “silvery,” was his first ticket to performing. As a small boy, he auditioned for All Saints, a choir school, where he received a scholarship for an education his minister father would not otherwise have been able to afford. His adult voice was a tenor. Kenneth Tynan, who was Olivier’s literary adviser at the National, remembered:

I passed the news [that Olivier was to play Othello] to Orson Welles, himself a former Othello. He voiced an instant doubt. “Larry’s a natural tenor,” he rumbled, “and Othello’s a natural baritone.” When I mentioned this to Olivier, he gave me what Peter O’Toole has expressively called “that grey-eyed myopic stare that can turn you to stone.” There followed weeks of daily lessons that throbbed through the plywood walls of the National’s temporary offices near Waterloo Bridge. When the cast assembled to read the play (3 February 1964), Olivier’s voice was an octave lower than any of us had ever heard it.

The voice was also the locus of Olivier’s only real acting problem, which beset him first in mild form during this production of Othello—stage fright. In this case, it seems to have been related to a real, though yet slight, diminution of his memory and consequent fear of forgetting his lines. But his panic attacks in the last decade of his stage career—in which the muscles of his mouth and throat became constricted—grew increasingly severe. For two years he controlled the panic with Valium, but when working on the film Sleuth in 1972, Michael Caine correctly identified Valium as (ironically) the source of his co-star’s short-term memory lapses, and convinced him to “stop the pills.”

Olivier’s face was brooding and expressive, with a strong chin and amazing eyes. As a schoolboy, he appeared as Kate in an amateur production of The Taming of the Shrew presented at Stratford, and was noticed even then. One critic praised his frown, which he described as “painted on” and then wiped off for Kate’s sunny and submissive ending. “That was my own frown!” said the actor, whose brows did tend to grow together in one thick line. He had not yet begun his years of playing with makeup and putty that characterized his performances. At 17, he auditioned for a scholarship at an acting school run by Elsie Fogarty. He received the scholarship, but also the following criticism:

“You have a weakness…here,” and she placed the tip of her little finger on my forehead against the base of my remarkably low hairline, and slid it down to rest in the deep hollow of my brow line and the top of my nose….There was obviously some shyness behind my gaze….It lasted until I discovered the protective shelter of nose putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for sculptural additions to my face.

The long nose and padded hunch-back for Richard; the three layers of body makeup buffed with chiffon and the gentian violet mouth dye for Othello; the blond hair for Hamlet; the filed from teeth for Archie Rice in The Entertainer—it is tempting, as Olivier himself suggests, to see his virtuosity with this aspect of stagecraft as very much a matter of hiding behind the disguise of the role. It was Jonathan Miller, directing Olivier in a 1970 Merchant of Venice, who finally called the actor’s makeup bluff, persuading him to ditch the big Jewish nose and go for something much simpler in his portrayal of Shylock. As it happens, Olivier fixated instead on a set of false teeth. “As he wore them in rehearsals (and indeed often around the corridors to bewilder and alarm people),” recalls Miller, “it was quite clear that he’d invested some emblematic significance in these teeth. His character seemed to grow outwards, from the molars, as it were.”

As Olivier aged, he used disguise less and less—in part because, having left the stage after 1974, his work was confined to films where more subtle measures were appropriate. In A Voyage Round My Father (1981), Olivier played a blind barrister. When I saw the film, his eyes look so completely glaucous I assumed he was wearing opaque contact lenses. But I learned from the Spoto biography that, plagued by a bad memory, Olivier was in fact reading his lines from a blackboard off-camera the whole time.

Olivier felt that it was a terrible weakness for him that he never wept in character—except for once only, in a performance of Othello. His eyes, aided in age by glasses, remained sharp until his death. Ronald Pickup, another fellow actor from the National days, called them “those wonderful, deep, blazing, hypnotic eyes, full of violence and humor.”

This was the body of the actor, an instinctual genius and workhorse who, from the winter of 1936 to the spring of 1938, “learned more than twelve thousand lines of Shakespeare in a schedule of performance and rehearsal that remains perhaps unique in the history of acting” (says Spoto). He was no intellectual, and in many ways his taste—such as one can gather from his taste in drapery, in costumes, in plays, in houses and in loves—was not exactly sophisticated.

Spoto’s book gives us the whole story, hook, line and sinker. There’s stuff purely of gossip interest: Olivier’s casual 10-year affair with Danny Kaye, for instance, and the rumors that he had an affair with Tynan while the critic worked for him at the National. There’s the suggestion that his sexual anxiety with women was only briefly allayed by the first passionate years of romance with Vivien Leigh; and the disappointment when his first wife, Jill Esmond, revealed her lesbian preferences (an event occasioning one of the real howlers in this book: Spoto writes, so broadmindedly, of Esmond that “her homosexuality would not have precluded a strong maternal instinct”).

Spoto is given to fairly sunny chaise-longue psychologizing; you can practically hear the rattle of the ice cubes in his g-and-t as he declares: “The reservoir from which he drew was fed not only by his own emotional history but also by a sense of emptiness and a consequent neediness. The awareness of inadequacy was suffused by a mysterious gift.” Olivier’s life, in fact, was anything but tragic: It was long, fulfilled, successful, beloved and talented, suffused with the gallant sense of public service that led him to build a National Theatre when he could have made a great deal more money being a movie star. Spoto keeps his subject at arm’s length at all times, through triumph and sorrow; it’s an admirable even-handedness, but I suspect it was because he couldn’t actually ever like his subject. To like Olivier, one must first and foremost love his acting, and Spoto seems not only not a fan (a mercy) but not even really appreciative of what makes the creature act, and what it means to do this sort of instinctual work for 70 years.

Spoto chronicles but seems uninterested in Olivier’s rivalries—especially with other male actors, and even more especially with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Yet they are central to understanding Olivier’s insecurity and consequent cruelties, which are extremely important insofar at they may have diminished his work as an actor and as a director. Olivier shows his own hand in these matters in his book On Acting (which I recommend) and in his Confessions of an Actor (which I do not); and there’s Olivier at Work, a sort of Festschrift compiled by the National Theatre after his death.

Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, did not participate in Spoto’s researches; revelatory of what I assume to be the biographer’s pique, she is rarely mentioned, and tellingly is described as “a plain, dark-haired, brown-eyed young woman, [with] a somewhat gauzy, flat voice.” Only a wish for revenge could have prompted such an inapt description of one of the great beauties and wizards of the English stage.

Olivier loved the role of Hamlet better than any other. His performances of that part were widely praised; unfortunately, his film of Hamlet reveals, to my taste, an insipid interpretation of the role. His Henry V, on the other hand, has been justly called a classic. Here, in his early embodiment of energy and nobility, he achieved a sort of cultural apotheosis; as Charles Laughton said to him of his performance: “You are England, that’s all.” In Richard III, and in the great performances of Olivier’s later life (those that are available on video)—The Dance of Death, The Entertainer, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and King Lear—Olivier continued to embody England, an England in decline. Those raging, lionlike performances lampoon at the same time they embody the tyrannies of the empire and the patriarchy. They are indispensable artifacts of the history of acting and the history of a people.

April Bernard is the author of a novel, Pirate Jenny (Norton), and a book of poems, Blackbird Bye Bye (Randon House).

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