Laurence Olivier

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Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 2:57 pm

O is for Laurence Olivier

Olivier wasn't just a great actor – he was a quintessentially modern performer, who cast a powerful spell over audiences

Michael Billington

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 20 March 2012 16.46 GMT


Feline grace ... Laurence Olivier with the family cat in 1946. Photograph: Keystone Features/Getty Images

It's a shock to realise that few people under the age of 60 will ever have seen Laurence Olivier on stage. It came as an even greater shock to be told recently that many young actors have either scarcely heard of him, or routinely dismiss him as an "old ham". Nothing could be further from the truth. I first came under Olivier's spell when, as a 15-year-old schoolboy, I saw him play Malvolio, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus in a single Stratford season. He was not only a great actor. He was also, allowing for changes of style and taste, a quintessentially modern actor.

How to explain his power? I would seize first of all on the voice. What was initially a light tenor became, through training and application, a uniquely flexible instrument that deepened by an entire octave when he played Othello at the National Theatre in 1964. But Olivier also knew exactly how to use his voice. The other day I was watching an edition of Charlie Rose's American TV show devoted to Richard III that interwove clips of Olivier, Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey delivering the famous opening soliloquy, which begins: "Now is the winter of our discontent." The other two actors were fine, but it was the Olivier voice, with its distinctive whiplash clarity, that caught the imagination: when he talked of the "lascivious pleasing of a lute", he sardonically savoured every syllable of the key adjective.

But Olivier had many other great qualities. He had an intuitive intelligence that enabled always to highlight the crucial attribute in a familiar classic role: the sulky boyishness of Coriolanus, for instance, or the overweening self-regard of Othello. To that he added a pioneering adventurousness that only Peggy Ashcroft could match: typically, he was the first of the theatrical knights to ally himself with the Royal Court by playing the broken-down vaudevillian, Archie Rice, in John Osborne's The Entertainer in 1957, and he made his farewell stage appearance as a militant Glaswegian trade unionist in Trevor Griffiths's The Party in 1973. And, in an age when most actors were not noted for their athleticism, Olivier possessed an extraordinary physical daring: no one who saw it will ever forget his sensational death-fall in Coriolanus, when he plunged head-first off a 12ft-high platform to leave his body ignominiously dangling like that of Mussolini.

I'm often asked how Olivier compares to today's actors. It's a question I usually duck, partly for fear of sounding like a nostalgic old fart and partly because acting changes all the time: today's actors are as likely to spend their time working on TV or in intimate studio spaces as on the big stages that were Olivier's natural territory. But when I describe Olivier as a modern actor, I mean he had the ironic instinct, interpretative originality and physical bravura we still prize. He could also adjust his performance to whatever medium he was working in. (Not, admittedly though, in the disastrous film version of Othello.) But, if you want to see great screen acting, get hold of a DVD of William Wyler's 1952 movie, Carrie (or watch it online). Olivier's performance as a successful restaurateur destroyed by erotic obsession is a masterpiece of observation and restraint.

That quality of observation is crucial. I only met Olivier once, some 30 years ago, when we met to do an extensive radio interview about Ralph Richardson. I was astonished by his faintly camp skittishness. "I may be very feminine, but I'm not effeminate," he casually remarked over pre-show drinks. But it was his omnivorous curiosity that also struck me. His eyes seized remorselessly on a tiny hole in some rather fancy espadrilles I was wearing that day. And when the programme's producer, who had a slight but perceptible limp, left us alone for a while, Olivier instantly wanted to know about the source and nature of her limp: something I had never troubled to ask. I've only met one other person with that same zealous inquisitiveness about everything under the sun, and that is the director Peter Brook. I've long suspected it is the quality that ultimately separates true genius from mere talent.

Now read: Olivier's name-dropping (though disappointingly discreet) autobiography, Confessions of an Actor ; the reviews of his greatest critical champion, Kenneth Tynan.

Not to be confused with: Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, Jamie Oliver, Oliver! the musical.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:01 pm


Portrait of Laurence Olivier in the role of Richard III by Salvador Dali

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:05 pm


Olivier as Richard III, 1955

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:07 pm


Hamlet.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:09 pm


Othello

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:10 pm


Macbeth

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:12 pm


Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:14 pm


Coriolanus

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:27 am


Shylock

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:31 am


Henry V

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:34 am


Iago

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:39 am


Olivier backstage, London.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  pinhedz on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:39 am


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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:41 am


Olivier backstage, London 1962.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  pinhedz on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:43 am

I think the giggling by those ladies is very insensitive. bounce

They might have moustaches, too.


Last edited by pinhedz on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:44 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:44 am


With Marilyn More in poster for The Prince and the Showgirl.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:48 am


Nazi dentist in Marathon Man.

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Re: Laurence Olivier

Post  eddie on Thu Mar 22, 2012 3:52 am


Heathcliffe

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