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Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivierfree

(1907–1989)
  • Michael Billington

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier (1907–1989)

by Yousuf Karsh, 1954

© Karsh / Camera Press, London; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Olivier, Laurence Kerr, Baron Olivier (1907–1989), actor and director, was born at 26 Wathen Road, Dorking, Surrey, on 22 May 1907, the younger son and youngest of the three children of the Revd Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939) and his first wife, Agnes Louise, née Crookenden (1871–1920). His father, a High Anglican, was then serving as assistant priest at St Martin's, Dorking. He was noted for his vocal resonance, athletic prowess, histrionic pulpit manner, and single-minded devotion to his calling. He was also something of a domestic tyrant. Olivier's mother, who came from a family of teachers, was more conspicuous for her intuitive intelligence and emotional sympathy. Out of the melding of these two genetic strains was to come a great actor who succeeded in a wider range of parts than any of his contemporaries, proved the natural successor to Garrick, Kean, Macready, and Irving, established a national theatre through his exemplary leadership, and made Shakespeare available to a mass audience through the cinema.

Early career

'I believe that I was born to be an actor', Olivier once said (Findlater, 206), and his talent certainly manifested itself early. At ten, while attending the West End choir school at All Saints, Margaret Street, London, he appeared in a production of Julius Caesar; it was seen by Irving's former theatrical partner, Ellen Terry, who noted in her diary: 'The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor' (Holden, 20). Five years later, while a student at St Edward's School, Oxford, he played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1922) in a school production invited to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. W. A. Darlington wrote in the Daily Telegraph that 'The boy who took the part of Kate made a fine, bold, black-eyed hussy badly in need of taming. I cannot remember seeing any actress in the part who looked it better' (ibid., 25).

Despite this early proclamation of his talent the young Olivier imagined he might be forced to follow his father into the church or his elder brother into life as an Indian rubber planter. Instead, his father told him he was going on the stage; and in 1924 he spent a year training under Elsie Fogerty at the Central School of Speech and Drama, situated in the labyrinthine interior of the Royal Albert Hall. Peggy Ashcroft, a contemporary, recalled him as 'rather uncouth in that his sleeves were too short and his hair stood on end but he was intensely lively and great fun' (Billington, 19). That hectic youthful vitality was spotted by Sir Barry Jackson, who engaged Olivier for two seasons at the Birmingham repertory theatre from 1926 to 1928. This became Olivier's university, enabling him to play a wide variety of lead roles, including Tony Lumpkin, Uncle Vanya, and Parolles in All's Well that Ends Well, and leading to a lifelong friendship with his fellow actor Ralph Richardson that was to have a decisive effect on the British theatre. Olivier also benefited from Jackson's policy of establishing London outlets for Birmingham productions. At the Royal Court, Olivier played the hero in Tennyson's archaic verse-drama, Harold (1926), and a flannel-suited Malcolm in Macbeth (1928), which engendered a belief in Shakespearian realism. And it was at the Royalty, while playing in John Drinkwater's Bird in Hand in 1928, that he met a rising young actress, Jill Esmond Moore Jack stage name Jill Esmond, daughter of the actor and playwright Harry Esmond Jack (Henry Vernon Esmond). They married on 25 July 1930.

Olivier's early years were marked by an impatient hunger for fame, one endorsed by his dashing good looks, fashionable Ronald Colman moustache, and matinée idol presence. But his poor judgement was revealed when he foolishly forsook R. C. Sheriff's Journey's End (1928), in which he scored a great success as the war weary commander in a single Sunday night performance, in order to play the foreign legion hero in P. C. Wren's Beau Geste (1929). The former turned into a commercial hit: the latter proved a spectacular flop. There followed a period of short runs in bad choices—no fewer than seven plays in 1929—from which he was rescued only by Noël Coward, who cast him as the priggish Victor Prynne in Private Lives in 1930. Olivier detested the part but later acknowledged the huge personal influence of Coward, who cured his tendency to giggle on stage, opened his mind to great literature, and 'gave me a sense of balance, right and wrong' (Holden, 63). Coward did not, however, cure Olivier of his insatiable star hunger. During the Broadway run of Private Lives (1931), Olivier was spotted by a talent scout and whisked off to Hollywood. Despite Coward's finger-wagging warnings ('you've got no artistic integrity, that's your trouble'; Holden, 165), Olivier headed west, accompanied by his young wife, with reckless enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the American studio system, which led to Olivier being cast in forgettable roles in forgotten pictures such as Friends and Lovers (1931) and The Yellow Passport (1931). After returning to London disenchanted he was once again seduced by Hollywood in 1933 with what sounded like an irresistible offer: starring opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina as the lovestruck Spanish envoy. Two weeks into shooting, however, Olivier was fired and replaced by John Gilbert. The official studio line was that Olivier was 'not tall enough': the reality was that he was petrified by his dauntingly unresponsive Swedish co-star. However humiliating at the time, the episode at least saved Olivier from the enervating prospect of a long-term studio contract. It also enabled him first to return to the Broadway stage, playing a submissive homosexual in The Green Bay Tree (1933), directed by the ferociously demonic Jed Harris (later a model both for Disney's Big Bad Wolf and Olivier's Richard III), and then to resume his matinée idol career in London. One particular performance in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's thinly veiled satire on the Barrymore family, Theatre Royal (1934), required an 8 foot leap over a balcony that enthralled West End audiences and set the standard for the bravura athleticism that defined Olivier's style throughout his career.

Rescued by Gielgud

After ten years as an actor Olivier's early promise remained unfulfilled. He had won some admiring notices and had been marked out as a potentially distinguished romantic actor. But he had also appeared in a string of commercial flops, had flirted unrewardingly with Hollywood, and had largely avoided the classics. His career seemed directionless and his marriage was increasingly unhappy. If anyone redefined his erratic professional life it was John Gielgud, who by the mid-1930s was already an established Shakespearian master. The two men, though polar opposites in temperament, became twin pillars of the British stage. They first worked together in 1934 when Olivier played Bothwell ('more Hollywood than Holyrood', said one critic) in Gielgud's production of Gordon Daviot's Queen of Scots at the New Theatre: a production that led to the forging of important lifelong friendships with George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw. When Gielgud staged Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre in 1935 he audaciously invited Olivier to join him in alternating the roles of Romeo and Mercutio (though Robert Donat had been his first choice), with Peggy Ashcroft as their Juliet.

For Olivier, who opened as Romeo, it was his first major classical role in London, and at first it seemed to have disastrously misfired. Olivier's naturalistic approach to the verse so shocked traditionalist critics that he immediately offered to resign the role; the offer was rejected and during the run Olivier's treatment of Romeo as an impetuous adolescent who, in J. C. Trewin's words, 'entered straight from the high Renaissance' (O'Connor, Olivier, 32), won increasingly vocal admirers. When Olivier took over as Mercutio he was widely praised for his athleticism, fire, and swagger. There was little doubt that Gielgud had the superior vocal technique. But Olivier brought to British classical acting a 'muscularity'—in Tyrone Guthrie's phrase—that had long been missing. Olivier and Gielgud never acted together again on stage. But from now on they were regarded as amicable rivals. It was Olivier himself who, in a 1967 television interview, best summed up the vital difference between them:

I've always thought that we were reverses of the same coin: the top half John, all spirituality, all beauty, all abstract things and myself as all earth, blood, humanity; if you like, the baser part of that humanity without the beauty.

Holden, 94

Whatever their temperamental differences, Gielgud helped transform Olivier from romantic matinée idol and modest movie star to major classical actor. Olivier's Romeo, in spite of critical hostility, also became an important calling card: not least in cinema. It led Elizabeth Bergner to insist that he play Orlando to her Rosalind in a film of As You Like It (1936) that earned him glowing notices. Alexander Korda also engaged him in summer 1936 to play the lead in a costume romance, Fire over England (1937), opposite the darkly beautiful Vivien Leigh. Their off-screen relationship prospered in spite of the birth of the Oliviers' son in August that year.

Impressed by Olivier's athletically romantic stage presence, Tyrone Guthrie invited him to join the Old Vic, initially to play a full-text Hamlet (1937). It was a crucial moment. At this stage of his rejuvenated career Olivier could have become a West End actor–manager (having in 1936 made his first venture into producing, in tandem with Ralph Richardson, with a J. B. Priestley play, Bees on the Boat-Deck) or a highly paid film actor. Instead, his youthful fame worship now tempered by a growing shrewdness, he plumped for a classical season at the Old Vic for £20 a week boosted by movie work whenever time allowed.

Hamlet opened the season in 1937 and once again Olivier left the critics hopelessly divided, sometimes within the same review. The influential James Agate of the Sunday Times flatly asserted: 'Mr Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.' At the same time Agate wrote of his 'pulsating vitality and excitement' (Agate, 273). That excitement was evidenced by a famous leap, after the play scene, from the perched up throne to the mimic stage below, and thence down to the footlights: a typical piece of Olivier bravura almost designed to highlight the difference between himself and the nobly lyric but more physically inhibited Gielgud. Again in stark contrast to Gielgud, who rarely stooped to impersonation, Olivier followed Hamlet with an elaborately disguised Toby Belch and then a cool, calculating Henry V. At first Olivier resisted Shakespeare's king because of the play's apparent glorification of war and what he saw as the monarch's scoutmaster ethos. It was Ralph Richardson who persuaded him that Henry V was 'the exaltation of scoutmasters' (Holden, 122). Eventually Olivier inhabited the character with such panache that Charles Laughton came backstage one night to pose the question why he was so good and to give him the exact answer: 'because', said Laughton, 'you are England' (ibid., 123).

No one claimed that Olivier was the embodiment of Scotland in a heavily stylized Michel Saint-Denis production of Macbeth (1937). But his intuitive intelligence and quest for psychological realism were demonstrated by the way he and his director, Tyrone Guthrie, turned to Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones, for help in explaining the character of Iago when they came to present Othello (1938). Unfortunately they failed to communicate to Ralph Richardson, the Othello, their excited discovery that the ensign had a subconscious homosexual love for the Moor and the production misfired. It was Olivier's Coriolanus, at the end of the 1938 Old Vic season, that marked a turning point and proved his greatest classical success so far. 'Of a stature to come within the line of the great tradition' wrote Alan Dent (Findlater, 215). 'A pillar of fire on a plinth of marble', enthused J. C. Trewin (O'Connor, Olivier, 35). Olivier found in the proudly martial Roman a perfect vehicle for his vocal incisiveness, savage irony, and physical heroism; it helped that he did a spectacular death fall in which, characteristically, he threw himself down a staircase in a somersault and came to a dead halt just short of the footlights.

Success in cinema

At the very point, however, when Olivier was being hailed as a great classical actor—worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Macready or Irving—he disappeared from the London stage, not to be seen again for six years. Partly this was because of the Second World War. But it was also because Olivier became increasingly preoccupied by film. Although suspicious of Hollywood after the fiasco over Queen Christina, Olivier was persuaded to return there in 1938 to play Heathcliff in William Wyler's film of Wuthering Heights (1939). The process of making the film was well-documented agony: Wyler was a directorial tyrant, Olivier was snobbish about cinema and was coldly hostile to his co-star, Merle Oberon, since he longed for Vivien Leigh, with whom he was engaged in a passionate affair, to play Cathy. But the film was a turning point for Olivier in his movie career: the carapace of theatricality that surrounded his earlier screen performances was replaced by a palpable reality. Sam Goldwyn, the film's producer, threatened to fire Olivier on the grounds that his Heathcliff was ugly and dirty. But the mud and dirt to which Goldwyn objected was part of the attentive physicality of Olivier's performance: it was visible, as Roger Lewis points out, in 'the way he pats the dogs or saddles the horses or frowns into the sunshine when he's lying down in the heather or the way he stands before the fireplace staring into the coals' (Lewis, 26). Thanks to Wyler's remorseless tuition and his own willingness to learn Olivier became a first-rate screen actor. He quickly applied the lessons he had learned on Wuthering Heights: his Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock's film of Rebecca (1940) and his Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1940) both suggest hidden fires lurking underneath an outward grace and civility.

In 1940 Olivier's first marriage was dissolved and on 30 August he was finally married to Vivien LeighVivian Mary Holman (1913–1967), daughter of Ernest Richard Hartley, exchange broker, and former wife of Herbert Leigh Holman, barrister—after a long, semi-public, and faintly scandalous liaison. But, marooned in Hollywood since the outbreak of war, Olivier grew increasingly guilty and fretful at his isolation from the war effort. In California he conquered his fear of flying by taking lessons to prepare himself for active service as a pilot. As a contribution to the war effort, and at the direct suggestion of Winston Churchill, the newly married Oliviers also made a film, Lady Hamilton (1941), intended as a morale-boosting effort to show Britain's historic role as the scourge of megalomaniac warmongers. The film achieved its purpose, though it nearly fell foul of the American censor, who protested vigorously about its apparent endorsement of the adulterous liaison of Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

Finally back in England in 1941 Olivier pulled strings to join the Fleet Air Arm and, to his delight, joined his old friend Ralph Richardson at a naval air station near Winchester. But his swashbuckling heroics on stage and screen were not matched by similar gifts as a pilot: on one occasion, in making an emergency landing, he managed to wreck three stationary aircraft at the base at Worthy Down. Olivier, at the age of thirty-four, realized his chances of seeing active service were limited. It was a relief to all concerned when the Ministry of Information, again at Winston Churchill's suggestion, approached him with the idea of filming Henry V as a contribution to the war effort. Initially Olivier's role was that of co-producer and leading actor, but when William Wyler and Carol Reed turned down the chance to direct the film Olivier took over behind the cameras as well.

Although Olivier removed much of the ambiguity from Shakespeare's complex drama of kingship—excising Henry's threats of genocide to the citizens of Harfleur—the film emerged as infinitely more than a piece of patriotic propaganda. Olivier showed genuine directorial flair in his framing device, whereby the action starts with a crane shot over a model of Shakespeare's London and eventually moves from the Globe Theatre into the fields of France. The battle scenes—including a famous moment when English arrows are heard whistling through the air—were also brilliantly filmed. Olivier's own performance was a beautifully poised characterization, balancing a rueful kingly reflectiveness with spine-tingling clarion cries as Henry exhorted his troops on the eve of battle. Released in Britain in 1944 and in America two years later—where it won Olivier a special Academy award—the film not only transcended its immediate propagandist purpose, it proved, to a generation of doubters, that Shakespeare was essentially filmable and could command a popular audience.

The Old Vic

While Olivier was completing Henry V at Denham Studios, he was persuaded by Ralph Richardson to join himself and a former BBC drama producer, John Burrell, as part of a triumvirate to run the Old Vic company. Since the bombing of its Waterloo Road base in 1941 the Old Vic had been kept alive by Tyrone Guthrie, who turned it, with great success, into an itinerant provincial company. Now the intention was to give it a London base at the New Theatre and to create an ambitious classical repertory: to make it, in all but name, an embryonic national theatre. With his highly competitive actor's instinct Olivier was not overjoyed at his initial allocation of roles. He loathed the part of the gallant Ruritanian soldier, Sergius, in Shaw's Arms and the Man, and when the production opened on tour in Manchester in 1944 he was so dispirited he felt tempted to go back to the navy. But, en route from the theatre back to the Midland Hotel after the second performance, Tyrone Guthrie responded to Olivier's fierce denunciation of the character by saying, 'Well, of course, if you can't love him, you'll never be any good in him, will you' (Holden, 188). According to Olivier the scales fell from his eyes and Guthrie's shrewd, well-timed observation 'changed the course of my actor's thinking for the rest of my life' (Olivier, 110).

Olivier's versatility and technique were, at this stage of his career, beyond question. But his ability to love a character, to enter totally into his being and to achieve the transubstantiation that is the hallmark of great acting, was conclusively proved by his triumph as Richard III in the third play of the Old Vic London season in 1944. In building the character Olivier used various elements, including the voice of Henry Irving and the malign temperament of the New York director Jed Harris. But the finished article was entirely his own and confirmation of his interpretative originality. In place of downright transpontine villainy Olivier offered a spellbinding mixture of the inner strategist and the outward hypocrite. 'Here indeed', wrote J. C. Trewin after the first night on 13 September,

we have the double Gloucester, thinker and doer, mind and mask … no other player in recent memory has made us so conscious of the usurper's intellect, made so plausible every move on the board from the great opening challenge to the last despair and death.

Holden, 191

Irony was the quality seized on by the young Kenneth Tynan:

I remember the deep concern, as of a bustling spinster, with which Olivier grips his brother George and says, with sardonic, effeminate intentness ‘We are not safe, Clarence, we are not safe’; while, even as he speaks, the plot is laid which will kill the man.

Tynan, 35

Olivier's triumph as Richard III was absolute: so much so that it became his most frequently imitated performance and one whose supremacy went unchallenged until Antony Sher played the role forty years later. But if it was Richard III that fully released Olivier's dark genius it may be because the character's blend of outward bonhomie and inner demonism accorded more closely than even he realized with his own, strangely driven private nature.

The Old Vic seasons at the New from 1944 to 1946 quickly became the stuff of theatrical legend. They showed the potential of a permanent classical company. They influenced a whole generation of young theatregoers, including a teenage Peter Hall. And they showed Olivier's infinite versatility. In the two parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV (1945) he moved from a ginger wigged, stammering, fiercely virile Hotspur to a shrill, spinsterly, scarecrow-like Justice Shallow. In one tumultuous evening he also played Sophocles' Oedipus and Mr Puff in Sheridan's The Critic (1945). In the former, Olivier, avoiding the marble chill associated with Greek tragedy, achieved a bloodshot realism climaxing in a cry of echoing anguish and terror. It says a lot about the retentive memory of the great actor that it was based on the tormented sound made by an ermine when its tongue is trapped by salt scattered upon hard snow. But although the instant transition to Mr Puff, hoisted into the flies on a painted cloud and clinging desperately to the curtain as it came down, was virtuosic, it did Sheridan few favours and seemed designed mainly to exhibit Olivier's showmanship.

Olivier, as the Old Vic seasons proved, held all the court cards as an actor: an incisive voice that could eat like acid into metal, an electrifying physicality, an interpretative originality, and a restless curiosity about humanity that gave everything he did an emotional reality. If there were any lingering doubts they concerned his capacity for tragic grandeur, and they resurfaced when he played King Lear in 1946. Some observers thought it a great performance. Tynan, however, felt 'it merely introduced us to a few wholly unexpected facets of the private life of Mr Justice Shallow' (Tynan, 59). Agate, while applauding its pathos and stillness, astutely observed: 'I have the conviction that Olivier is a comedian by instinct and a tragedian by art' (Findlater, 236).

In 1947 Olivier was knighted 'for services to stage and films'. He was, and throughout the twentieth century remained, the youngest actor ever to have been so honoured, though it says much about his innate competitiveness that he deeply resented Ralph Richardson's prior elevation. But, although Olivier was by now the acknowledged leader of his profession, his film Hamlet (1948) was an oddly inert affair. Half the text was cut, including two of Hamlet's greatest soliloquies. The camera endlessly tracked up and down the corridors of Roger Furse's Elsinore. And, despite a prodigiously athletic leap from a 15 foot high platform in order to kill Claudius, Olivier's own performance lacked the fiery energy he had displayed at the Old Vic ten years previously. Even though it was the least interesting of Olivier's screen Shakespeares, the film was a popular commercial success and won four Hollywood Oscars, including those for best film and best actor.

Olivier's fortunes were in the ascendant. And if there was surprise that at the height of his fame he should decide to lead the Old Vic company on a ten-month tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1948 there were good reasons for the move. Olivier and Richardson had been approached by the prospective National Theatre Board with a scheme to incorporate the Old Vic into the finished building: for Olivier an international tour would be a means of forging a wholly new company with a national identity. Cultural diplomacy also played its part: the British Council felt that a display of excellence would be a means of softening antipodean anti-imperialistic sentiment. For Olivier himself there were also private motives for undertaking the trip: his total absorption in his career had put strains on his marriage to the increasingly manic-depressive Vivien and he felt that the tour, in which she was to play three leading roles, would reignite their passion and confirm her theatrical status. The irony is that, although the tour achieved its diplomatic aims and increased the Oliviers' world fame, it led to the unravelling of their marriage and saw the dissolution of the Old Vic partnership.

The three plays chosen were Richard III, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of our Teeth, and Sheridan's The School for Scandal, in which the Oliviers played Sir Peter and Lady Teazle. The schedule, with Olivier appearing in all three plays and directing two of them, was incredibly gruelling. On top of that he was expected to fulfil a quasi-ambassadorial role: he was asked to inspect troops, take salutes, and even, on one occasion, make a speech on monarchy and empire to an audience of 3000 in Melbourne town hall. On one level the tour was a triumphant success: 179 performances were given to more than 300,000 people, a sizeable profit accrued, and any residual anti-British sentiment was overcome by the Oliviers' joint glamour. But the tour also marked a watershed in Olivier's professional and personal fortunes. Physically he sustained a severe cartilage injury which led to his playing the final performances of Richard III on morphine. That, however, was a minor problem compared to the realization that his marriage, as Vivien carried on an open liaison with a member of the company, was little more than a hollow ritual sustained for the benefit of an adoring public.

The biggest blow, however, came half-way through the tour when Olivier received a letter from Lord Esher, the chairman of the Old Vic, announcing that the board of governors planned to dispense with the services of Olivier, Richardson, and John Burrell as directors at the end of their five-year contracts. The move, already prophesied by Richardson, was partly a result of the politicking over a planned national theatre. Some also saw the hand of Tyrone Guthrie in the sacking: he had been critical of recent Old Vic policy and saw Olivier and Richardson as absentee landlords who wanted 'to have their cake and eat it' (Holden, 239). Whatever the motives the timing was cruel and the manner brutal. Far from advancing the cause of the national theatre, it delayed it by many years. With Olivier and Richardson at the helm the Old Vic might have become the basis for a national company; instead the sacking of both actors ensured they returned to the private sector and the pursuit of their individual careers.

Mid-life crisis

Although Olivier returned to do a final season with the Old Vic in 1949, adding his own production of Anouilh's Antigone to Richard III and The School for Scandal, the antipodean tour marked a decisive moment in his career. The veteran actor Harcourt Williams noted: 'Larry had lost the basic need that propels every actor. He was leaning more and more towards directing and producing because he no longer had the drive for attention … his attitude to life was almost world-weary' (Holden, 246). Increasingly, in fact, he became an impresario, taking a four-year lease on the St James's Theatre in 1949 where he staged plays by Christopher Fry and Dennis Cannan as well as starring, with Vivien Leigh, in a Festival of Britain pairing of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1951). He also played to the hilt the role of country squire at Notley Abbey, the twelfth-century, 22-room Buckinghamshire manor house that he had bought in 1945. Apparently accepting that his marriage was something of a sham he turned a benevolently blind eye on Vivien's affair with Peter Finch, a young actor whom Olivier had talent-spotted in Australia and whose British career he actively promoted.

If Olivier's theatrical career lost much of its dynamism in the early 1950s, he made one film that contains one of his finest, most underrated screen performances: as the doomed George Hurstwood in William Wyler's Carrie (1952). Once a rich restaurateur, Hurstwood sacrifices his marriage for a grand passion and ends up destitute, tubercular, and desperately craving a handout from the lover who has abandoned him. It was a total reversal of Olivier's previously heroic screen presence. But, as always, he invested the character with a microscopically accurate realism: he counted the banknotes and handled the keys in the precise manner of a midwestern restaurant owner. In the final scenes, when he begged Jennifer Jones's Carrie for money for a night's lodging, Olivier also touched rare emotional depths: his voice thick with illness, his eyes closed in exhaustion, he gave the lie to the familiar canard that he was an exclusively technical actor. The film was a commercial failure. But William Wyler accurately described it as 'the truest and best portrayal on film of an American by an Englishman' (Holden, 261).

If Carrie was a flop d'estime, the film of The Beggar's Opera (1952), in which Olivier played Macheath, was an unmitigated disaster. Olivier's lightweight baritone was judged inadequate. There were on-set disagreements with the director, Peter Brook, and the film opened to derisive reviews. Olivier's reputation was also scarcely enhanced by his appearance, opposite Vivien Leigh, in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince (1953). He was not only accused of wasting his talent on commercial froth, the play renewed critical speculation, which first surfaced during the season of dual Cleopatras at the St James's, that he was increasingly scaling down his own heroic individualism to accommodate the porcelain prettiness of his co-star. Trapped inside a public showbiz marriage Olivier seemed more concerned with propping up his wife's career and ensuring her mental stability than with scaling the lonely, classical peaks.

It was with some relief that Olivier turned in the winter of 1954 to the filming of Richard III (1955). In some ways, it was the hardest of his three Shakespearian films to accomplish: the original text is dynastically complex and studded with references to past events and unseen characters. But Alan Dent's adaptation clarified it admirably for a cinema audience, and Olivier brilliantly used the camera as a co-conspirator, confiding to it—and to the audience—his plans to achieve the throne by giving murder the cloak of constitutional legality. What particularly emerges on screen is Olivier's sly, feminine roguishness; his performance has the twinkling malevolence of a maiden aunt with disturbing psychopathic tendencies. With Ralph Richardson as a Buckingham wittily described by Paul Dehn as 'a Mr Baldwin who has read Machiavelli' (Dehn, 76) and John Gielgud as an exquisitely lyrical Clarence, the film also had a star power impossible to achieve at the Old Vic.

A classical recovery

After his return from the antipodes Olivier's own career had seemed to be subordinated to the fabled showbiz construct of 'the Oliviers'. A major turning point, however, came in 1955 with Olivier's return—for the first time since his schoolboy Katharine—to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, then, under the directorship of Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw, enjoying an artistic prosperity that completely eclipsed the dowdy Old Vic. Olivier's chosen roles for the season were Malvolio, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus. But, while Vivien Leigh played opposite him in all the productions, there was no sense of Olivier diminishing his blowtorch ebullience to accommodate his wife. After a modest start with Malvolio, played as a bumptious arriviste with severe vowel problems, Olivier enjoyed a total triumph as Macbeth: a role that, in the annals of British theatre, had traditionally defeated even the greatest actors. Olivier convincingly reconciled the soldier, the poet, and the hero–villain. Above all he invested the character with a brooding inwardness in the early scenes as if he had been living with bloody thoughts for a long time past. But there was also a savage comic irony—not least in the scene with the two murderers—and at the end a heart wrenching despair. When Macbeth lists the consolations of age that he has forever sacrificed, Olivier's voice soared on 'troops of friends' as if summoning up an eternal, echoing loneliness.

Even more remarkably, Olivier's conquest of Macbeth was followed by his total reclamation of Titus Andronicus as a tragic hero in Peter Brook's starkly ritualistic production. Elizabethan grand guignol was transformed into great art, and Olivier discovered in Titus premonitions of Lear. His cry of 'I am the sea' was accompanied by a sound like waves beating on a distant shore; the on-stage severance of his hand transcended stage trickery through his long withheld howl of pain; and when he leant against a pillar to ask 'When will this fearful slumber have an end?' he became the epitome of antique pathos. Whatever accusations critics made against Olivier in the course of his long career he eventually rebutted. To Agate's claim that he was an instinctive comedian rather than a tragedian or to Tynan's assertion that he was an essentially active player incapable of great suffering, his Stratford Macbeth and Titus provided a definitive riposte.

Olivier's reassertion of his classical supremacy, endorsed by the release of the cinematic Richard III, still left him with a gnawing dissatisfaction. His private life, with Peter Finch moving into Notley Abbey to form a ménage à trois, was an unholy mess. His mooted film of Macbeth was capsized by the death in 1956 of its putative producer, Alexander Korda. And Olivier's experience of directing Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), though it generated prurient showbiz headlines, was a protracted nightmare. By his own admission Olivier was 'going mad, desperately searching for something suddenly fresh and thrillingly exciting' (Holden, 315), when a second courtesy visit to the Royal Court to see Look Back in Anger, which he cordially detested, led to an encounter with its author, John Osborne. However much he disliked Osborne's first play Olivier was shrewd enough to see that the theatrical power centre was gradually shifting from Shaftesbury Avenue to Sloane Square, and cannily enquired if Osborne's new play might have a role for him. It was a defining moment both for Olivier in his professional and private life and for the future of British theatre. While Gielgud, Richardson, and Guinness had all rejected the chance to appear in Waiting for Godot, Olivier actively embraced the new. The result was a breathtaking performance in The Entertainer, which finally opened at the Royal Court in 1957. Not only did Olivier capture the surface detail of Osborne's third-rate, broken-down music-hall comedian, Archie Rice—the cheap grey suit, the fake bonhomie, the leering innuendo, the bent-wristed camp were all exactly observed—but beyond that Olivier conveyed the total desolation of a man aware of his own essential hollowness and atrophied emotions. It was a world away from Macbeth, and yet Olivier invested the role with a similar arc of despair leading to the ultimate revelation of the character's terminal solitude.

Olivier's performance in The Entertainer reanimated his career and marked a symbolic union between the theatrical establishment and the radical pioneers: here was the embodiment of theatrical glamour appearing in a play that treated the music-hall as a metaphor for a decaying, post-Suez Britain. The play also introduced Olivier to a young actress, Joan Plowright, who played his daughter in the production's West End transfer and who, after the protracted breakup of his marriage to Vivien Leigh (they were divorced in December 1960), was eventually to become his third wife.

Olivier's renewed zest for work, and eagerness to ally himself with a new generation, was confirmed by his towering 1959 Stratford upon Avon performance as Coriolanus under the direction of the 28-year-old Peter Hall. In his return to a role he had first played at the Old Vic in 1938 Olivier emphasized the character's emotional immaturity, loathing of civilian humbug, and smouldering irony. But, as Laurence Kitchin noted, it was Olivier's 'interpretative intelligence' (Kitchin, 136) that stood out. It was symbolized not just by his sulky pride in the presence of public acclamation or by his spoilt-boy behaviour with his mother, but by the spontaneous joy that greeted any mention of the Volscian leader, Aufidius: a clear indication of the underlying sexuality of martial conflict. Yet there was a bruising virility and fierce athleticism to his performance, culminating in a death fall that led to his being suspended by his ankles from a 12 foot promontory: an athleticism all the more astonishing when set against the fact that he was regularly commuting from Stratford to Morecambe to film The Entertainer.

New directions

Olivier's appetite for the new led him back to the Royal Court in 1960 to play Berenger, the insignificant little man who stays defiantly human when everyone else turns into a rhino, in Ionesco's absurdist parable Rhinoceros. This was a play that hardly stretched his talents and it led to a bitter quarrel with the play's director, Orson Welles, whose role Olivier summarily usurped in the final stages of rehearsal. But although he busily shuttled between London and Broadway, where he played first the title role and then Henry II in Anouilh's Becket (1960–61), and although he finally achieved domestic happiness and stability with his marriage to Joan Ann Plowright (b. 1929)—the daughter of William Ernest Plowright, a Lincolnshire newspaper editor, and former wife of Roger Gage—on 17 March 1961, his public career still lacked a visible destination.

The focus Olivier desperately needed came almost by accident. A Sussex optician, Leslie Evershed-Martin, had chanced to watch a television programme by Tyrone Guthrie hymning the virtues of the open stage at Stratford, Ontario: ironically a theatrical form that Guthrie had discovered during an improvised indoor restaging of the Olivier Hamlet at Elsinore in 1937. Evershed-Martin decided that the town of Chichester had parallels with the Canadian Stratford and could sustain a similar theatre. Via Guthrie he was put in touch with Olivier and offered him the directorship of the brand new, still unfinished hexagonal theatre. Everything conspired to make Olivier accept: his paternalistic love of companies, his relish for the new, and the fact that he and his wife had decided to settle in nearby Brighton.

Accepting a modest salary of £3000 Olivier threw himself into the Chichester enterprise wholeheartedly, and, after a shaky start with two obscure period plays, the opening season in 1962 sprang to life with his own near definitive production of Uncle Vanya. It was a reminder of Olivier's underestimated gifts as a director; everything about the production, from the distant sound of barking dogs to the intrusive peals of thunder, was perfectly orchestrated. It also proved that the open sided Chichester stage was perfectly suited to proscenium arch naturalistic drama. Above all, it was a company achievement dominated by luminous performances from Michael Redgrave as a shrill, pigeon-toed, self-deceiving Vanya, from Olivier himself as a visionary Astrov maimed by self-knowledge, and from Joan Plowright as a defiant, unbearably moving Sonya. Vanya performances in that first Chichester season acquired such intensity that backstage they were dubbed 'holy nights'.

The National Theatre

Just as Chichester was preparing to open, plans for a national theatre were coming to a head. As far back as 1957 Olivier had been sounded out about the directorship by Lord Chandos (formerly Oliver Lyttelton), chairman of the various groups working towards establishment of a national theatre. Given that the National seemed a distant prospect, Olivier was wary. But in 1961 the Labour-led London county council forced the government's hand and the Conservative chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, announced the release of £1 million towards the creation of a national theatre: initially an umbrella organization intended to incorporate the Old Vic, Stratford, and the Sadler's Wells opera and ballet companies. Stratford's eventual withdrawal led to the removal of Sadler's Wells from the equation and confirmed the idea of a national theatre as a separate entity. In July 1962 Selwyn Lloyd gave the green light to the revised scheme: the Old Vic would become the temporary home of the National Theatre Company pending the construction of a theatre on the south bank of the Thames. Lord Chandos became the first chairman of the National Theatre Board. Olivier was formally asked to become the theatre's founder-director and had no hesitation in accepting. It was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream and one that would capitalize on his gifts as actor, director, producer, company leader, and rallier of the troops. He could even use Chichester as a means of building a new company.

Olivier's shrewdest move in setting up the National Theatre was to invite two of the brightest young directors from the Royal Court, John Dexter and William Gaskill, to join him as associates. He also cannily acceded to Kenneth Tynan's wish to become literary manager, thereby capitalizing on his vast theatrical knowledge while neutralizing him as a critic. His most ungenerous decisions were his failure to recruit Richardson and Gielgud, and his miscasting, and eventually sacking, of Michael Redgrave, seemingly unaware of his disabling illness. But the absence of the older stars paved the way for the emergence of new ones; and under Olivier's tutelage Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Derek Jacobi, and Anthony Hopkins all developed into major classical performers. In its early years the new National Theatre Company seemed equally adept at all styles: period classics such as The Recruiting Officer and Trelawny of the Wells, established warhorses such as Hobson's Choice and Hay Fever, and even new plays such as The Royal Hunt of the Sun and, famously, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Olivier himself also led the company from the front. His Astrov, repeated from Chichester, was followed by Captain Brazen in The Recruiting Officer (1963), an exact study in controlled flamboyance, and a magisterial and still controversial Othello (1964). With his rolling, loose-limbed gait, his oscillating hips, his rotating palms, Olivier conveyed the vanity, pride, and self-dramatizing narcissism of an Othello who was natural prey to Iago's wiles. His voice, deepened by an octave through rigorous training, also matched the character's mellifluous rhetoric. And his disintegration, under Iago's poison, was truly awesome, leading, as he tore a crucifix from his neck, to an atavistic obeisance to the barbaric gods. But while Harold Hobson spoke for the majority in acclaiming 'the power, passion, verisimilitude and pathos of Sir Laurence's performance' (Holden, 379), doubting voices were raised. Jonathan Miller, while admiring Olivier's bravura and energy, was stolidly unimpressed. The critic of The Times argued that the downgrading of Iago seriously impoverished the play, in that 'Othello needs an adversary, not an accomplice' (Elsom, 142).

Olivier's finest performance in the National Theatre's early years was as Captain Edgar, locked in a love and death struggle with his wife, in Strindberg's The Dance of Death (1967). As Richard Findlater wrote, he looked and sounded magnificently right: 'close-cropped Prussian head, hooded stony eyes, aggressively jutting jaw, a choleric red face which went purple in his fits and seemed to blanch when he was on the point of doing something particularly nasty' (Findlater, 232). Beyond that, Olivier combined monstrosity and humour in a way that seemed quintessentially Strindbergian and was especially brilliant in the mimetic passages: executing the Boyars' dance with a brutal grace or stamping on his wife's photograph and shooting at her piano with Dionysiac fury. It took Olivier's interpretative zest to remind audiences that Strindberg was not a morbid misogynist but a blackly comic writer.

Under Olivier's leadership the National Theatre enjoyed several years of unstinted glory: there may not have been any discernible house style, as at the rival Royal Shakespeare Company, but there was an ability to adapt to the demands of a particular play. Without creating an inflexible ensemble on European lines, Olivier also succeeded in building up a fiercely loyal company which he led with bulldog tenacity. But after four golden years the National began to seem a troubled organization in the late 1960s. Olivier himself suffered a series of debilitating illnesses, starting with cancer of the prostate. His two directorial associates, Dexter and Gaskill, who had given the company much of its early impetus, decided to leave. There was also a furious public row in 1968 over the National Theatre Board's refusal to sanction a production of Rolf Hochhuth's Soldiers: a play which debated the blanket bombing of Dresden and parenthetically branded Churchill a war criminal. The play was enthusiastically championed by Kenneth Tynan and equally firmly rejected by Lord Chandos, who had been a member of Churchill's wartime cabinet. Olivier found himself caught in the middle: he believed strongly in the idea of directorial independence and valued Tynan's literary knowledge but was not, in the end, prepared to resign over a play whose arguments about Churchill were and remained unproven. What was surprising, to an outsider, was Chandos's privately expressed contempt for Olivier's judgement and his belief that he was being manipulated not just by Tynan but by his wife, Joan Plowright, whom Chandos described as 'a Red' (personal knowledge).

By the late 1960s Olivier was suffering increasingly from stage fright, world weariness, and an increasing number of side-effects from his cancer treatment. But he returned to the stage in 1970 as Shylock in Jonathan Miller's production of The Merchant of Venice: a performance that, when stripped of the Hebraic accoutrements Olivier had originally planned, poignantly revealed the contradictions in Shylock's character. The contradictions in Olivier's own character were exposed by his ambivalent acceptance of a life peerage (as Baron Olivier, of Brighton) in the same year. The establishment side of him recognized that it was the first ennoblement of an actor in the history of his profession and, as such, must be dutifully accepted: the subversive, pub entertainer side of him was frightened it would cut him off from his colleagues. On the day of his elevation he dispatched a circular to the National Theatre staff suggesting that the first person to address him as 'Your Lordship' would be fired on the spot.

Inevitably there was a twilit quality to Olivier's final years at the National, but one illuminated by periodic bursts of theatrical lightning. One struck in December 1971 at a time when the National, having opened a second front at the New Theatre and come up with a string of duds, was under severe pressure. Olivier's James Tyrone in Michael Blakemore's production of Long Day's Journey into Night was both an individual triumph and a symbol of the National's renewed confidence. What was startling was Olivier's ability to play an ageing, miserly, cantankerous American matinée idol who, totally unlike himself, had put commercial safety before artistic adventure. Olivier's genius was to suggest that inside this New England ham lurked an unrealized talent. When he sweetly crooned 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on', he both evoked a vanished acting style and made the audience believe for a moment that Tyrone might once have been an American Kean. For a genuinely great actor to play a nearly great one was a technical feat of extraordinary skill.

Later years

Even as Olivier was enjoying a success that would herald a period of renewed energy at the National Theatre, plans were under way to appoint his successor. Informal approaches to Peter Hall had been made by Sir Max Rayne, the National's new chairman, as early as the summer of 1971. Hall was sworn to secrecy, and when Olivier indicated to Rayne in February 1972 that he wished gradually to phase himself out he had no knowledge of the backroom negotiations. Only on 24 March was he formally told of the board's decision that he was to be replaced by Peter Hall. For the second time in his life he felt a deep sense of betrayal by a board, but on this occasion the wounds never healed and to his dying day he was aggrieved at the failure to consult him over his eventual successor. At one stage he wanted an actor—Joan Plowright, Richard Burton, or Richard Attenborough—to take over the reins: at other times, he plumped for Michael Blakemore.

Although Olivier made life difficult for Peter Hall—who finally succeeded him in November 1973 with the intention of leading the company into the new building on the south bank—and prevaricated about the date of his departure, he was still treated with a dismal lack of dignity and respect by the National Theatre Board. It says much about his appetite for the unconventional that his final appearance at the National—or indeed on any stage—was in December 1973 as a tough Glaswegian Trotskyite in Trevor Griffiths's The Party. Olivier phrased his climactic twenty-minute speech with a musical command of tempi, and with a vivid ability to clarify the complex argument through the use of his bunched and muscular hands. It was a granite hard performance, possibly imbued with something of Olivier's own growing detestation of unearned authority.

Freed from the shackles of running the National Theatre, Olivier devoted himself in the last fifteen years of his life to capitalizing on his fame and earning a tidy fortune for the benefit of his wife and their three children. He earned $1 million making a Polaroid commercial for American television. He made cameo appearances in a number of often undistinguished films. His best performance, by far, was as a sadistic Nazi dentist in John Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976), for which he was nominated, in the Oscars, as best supporting actor.

It was in television, a medium he initially despised, that Olivier made his greatest impact in his later years. In the 1970s he co-produced (with Derek Granger) and starred in two series of adaptations for Granada of well-known stage plays. It gave him the chance to repeat his brilliant performance as the fetishistic, hat-thieving grandfather in Saturday, Sunday, Monday and to essay roles, such as Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy, that he had never played on stage. Most surprising of all was his performance as the muscular homosexual Harry Kane, in Pinter's The Collection (1976): listening to Olivier's callous description of his working-class lover, Bill, as a 'slum-slug' and watching his brutal finesse one could only dream of the many other Pinter roles he might have played. It was also for Granada that Olivier played the dying, guilt-haunted patriarch Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited (1981), and for whom in 1983 he played a final, valedictory King Lear. Given an endless series of illnesses that would have destroyed a lesser man, the vocal thunder was inevitably missing but Lear's irascibility and suffering were sharply etched and in the confrontation with Gloucester on Dover cliffs Olivier achieved a lucid pathos that echoed his former glories.

Olivier was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1979, and was appointed OM in 1981. He held honorary degrees from Tufts, Massachusetts (1946), Oxford (1957), Edinburgh (1964), London (1968), Manchester (1968), and Sussex (1978). He continued working until three years before his death of renal failure at his home at The Malthouse, Horsebridge Green, near Steyning, Sussex, on 11 July 1989. He was survived by his wife, their three children, and the son of his first marriage.

Olivier crammed numerous careers into a single lifetime: classical actor, Hollywood star, theatrical and television producer, West End impresario, National Theatre director. His Confessions of an Actor (1982) gives the strong impression of a man driven by an overpowering sense of private guilt inherited from his religious upbringing and fuelled by his single-minded career worship, marital failures, and professional jealousies. But what stood out, both in public interviews and in personal encounters, was his magpie memory and insatiable curiosity. It was typical of Olivier that, in the National Theatre Othello, a sly, ironic aside to the duke of Venice about the 'Anthropophagi'—implying a complicity of knowledge—was based on an encounter twenty-five years previously with a pseudo-intellectual who, in talking about stimulants, quickly changed the word to 'stimuli'. Olivier's career was studded with examples of gestures, intonations, even pieces of theatrical business retrieved at will from the vast storehouse of his memory. But there was in Olivier a prodigious fascination with humanity at large. His omnivorous actor's observation was akin to that of a great novelist or poet.

Partly because of the lack of discrimination in his later choice of film it became fashionable to downgrade Olivier and to suggest, especially in comparison with Gielgud and Richardson, that he lacked some essential inner richness. But that was to overlook the protean nature of his achievements. Only a man of Olivier's iron determination, political skill, and instinctive leadership could have translated the National Theatre from a platonic idea into a living reality. It took a similar mixture of tenacity, energy, and endurance to make no fewer than three Shakespeare films that proved, against all the intellectual odds, that it was possible to transfer the greatest poetic drama to the screen.

For all Olivier's multiple achievements, it is as an actor that he will live longest in the collective memory. 'He is greatest', wrote G. H. Lewes, 'who is greatest in the highest reaches of his art.' No other actor before Olivier conquered so many of the commanding theatrical heights: not just Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, but Titus, Coriolanus, Henry V, Hotspur, Romeo, Shylock, Sophocles' Oedipus, Ibsen's Halvard Solness, Chekhov's Astrov, Strindberg's Captain Edgar. Olivier was no less adept in comedy, whether as Tony Cavendish in Theatre Royal, Sheridan's Mr Puff and Sir Peter Teazle, Congreve's Tattle in Love for Love, or Farquhar's Captain Brazen in The Recruiting Officer. Even if there were occasional failures in modern drama—such as his performance as a devious midlands insurance agent in David Turner's Semi-Detached (1962)—they were made up for by the complex richness of his Archie Rice in The Entertainer.

Conscious of his status as a national icon Olivier would have thought it entirely fitting that, after his death, his vast professional and personal archive should be acquired by the British Library with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. But, although the establishment side of Olivier relished honours and acclaim, he saw himself primarily as a practical man of the theatre. And, if he elevated the art of acting in the twentieth century, it was principally by the overwhelming force of his example. Like Garrick, Kean, and Irving before him, he lent glamour and excitement to acting so that, in any theatre in the world, an Olivier night raised the level of expectation and sent spectators out into the darkness a little more aware of themselves and having experienced a transcendent touch of ecstasy. That, in the end, was the true measure of his greatness.

Sources

  • L. Olivier, Confessions of an actor (1982)
  • A. Holden, Olivier (1988)
  • D. Spoto, Laurence Olivier (1991)
  • R. Findlater, The player kings (1971)
  • R. Lewis, The real life of Laurence Olivier (1997)
  • G. O'Connor, Darlings of the gods (1984)
  • G. O'Connor, ed., Olivier: in celebration (1987)
  • K. Tynan, He that plays the king (1950)
  • J. Agate, Brief chronicles (1943)
  • M. Billington, Peggy Ashcroft (1988)
  • J. Elsom, ed., Post-war British theatre criticism (1981)
  • P. Dehn, For love and money (1956)
  • I. Herbert, ed., Who's who in the theatre, 1 (1981)
  • WWW, 1981–90
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • L. Kitchin, Mid-century drama (1960)

Archives

  • BL, corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to J. W. Lambert
  • JRL, corresp. with Robert Donat
  • King's AC Cam., letters to G. H. W. Rylands
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Emlyn Williams
  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark
  • V&A, theatre collections, corresp. with Christopher Fry
  • V&A, Vivien Leigh corresp.

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1922–80, Hult. Arch.
  • L. Willinger, photograph, 1940, NPG
  • P. Lambda, two busts, 1950, NPG
  • Y. Karsh, three photographs, 1954, NPG [see illus.]
  • I. Penn, photograph, 1962, NPG
  • A. Newman, photograph, 1978, NPG
  • E. Sergeant, oils, 1982, NPG
  • A. Morrison, photograph, 1987, NPG
  • R. Spear, portrait, Royal Shakespeare Company Gallery, Stratford upon Avon
  • A. Wysard, double portrait, pencil and watercolour drawing (with Vivien Leigh), NPG

Wealth at Death

£1,352,383: probate, 25 Oct 1989, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)