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Capturing Olivier in his contradictory essence

by Philip French

The Observer

Laurence Olivier was the greatest British actor of his time, primus inter pares of the trio who dominated our theater from the early 1930s to the 1980s. His superiority to his chief rivals, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, resides in the role he played in the creation of the National Theatre and in the way he came to embody for the public at large a sense of national greatness. His most magnificent and emblematic performances were as Henry V and as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

OLIVIER, by Philip Ziegler. Maclehose Press, 2013, 461 pp., £25 (hardcover)

The former was the warrior king in the patriotic Second World War movie that captured the Churchillian spirit of Britain at her finest hour. The latter was the second-rate music hall comedian, full of imperial bluster and bad faith, who symbolized in the aftermath of the Suez debacle a nation that had, in the words of Dean Acheson, “lost an empire but not yet found a role.”

Philip Ziegler, one of our best biographers, had a row of books about Olivier to draw on, as well as 50 hours of reminiscences packed with grumpy, obscene frankness, recorded by Mark Amory, literary editor of the Spectator, for a ghosted autobiography that Olivier unwisely abandoned to write his own stilted memoir. Ziegler draws judiciously on his sources for this lucid, revealing account of a long life dedicated centrally to the theater and peripherally, profitably and with an initial patronizing reluctance, to the cinema and TV.

Olivier was born in 1907 into a professional, upper-middle-class family, though his branch of it lived in genteel poverty. His father was “a strident, bad-tempered, somewhat stupid Anglican vicar” who disliked him intensely. His mother was a forceful lady who doted on him. She got him into a minor public school, where he played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” and became entranced by the theater. He was by his own admission a troublesome, flirtatious, compulsively mendacious child.

His mother died when he was 12 (her last words to the family were, “Be kind to Larry”), and his father rather surprisingly decided he should go on the stage and got him into the Central School. “I want to be the world’s greatest actor,” he declared, an ambition from which he never deviated.

He had an oddly menacing appearance as a young man with thick hair, shaggy eyebrows and prominent teeth. A photograph in the book makes him look like Dr. Jekyll halfway to becoming Mr. Hyde. But by the time he’d made his way through a couple of touring companies and into Barry Jackson’s prestigious Birmingham Rep (where he played Vanya at 20), he was physically toned and had acquired the saturnine matinee idol looks that made him a suitable second lead in Coward’s “Private Lives.”

By the mid-1930s he had tackled six major Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic in eight months. He became a protean actor, a master of stage disguise who once said of himself: “I don’t know who I am.”

At 23 he married a fellow actor, Jill Esmond, his motives, Ziegler suggests, being sex, security and social advancement, but she turned out to be a lesbian.

In his first major film, the period drama “Fire Over England,” he became the lover of his co-star, the bipolar Vivien Leigh, then the wife of a wealthy older man. There was real passion here, and the pair found stardom in Hollywood at the end of the decade, she in “Gone With the Wind,” he in “Wuthering Heights” and “Rebecca.” They eventually married, though he was later to say, unkindly but accurately, that she was “barking f——-g mad from the word go.”

Although Olivier didn’t see it this way, his subsequent career was a series of triumphs as actor, director and actor-manager.

After a brief service in the Fleet Air Arm, where he was popular among his colleagues, if somewhat detached from them, he joined his close friend Ralph Richardson in reviving the fortunes of the Old Vic, had a spectacular international success with his film of “Henry V,” and made two further, equally acclaimed Shakespeare movies. He became a pillar of the establishment, knighted, ennobled, and finally a recipient of the OM.

His ultimate theatrical achievement was the opening of the National Theatre, the complex internal politics of which Ziegler handles with fairness, especially with regard to the brilliant but devious dramaturge Ken Tynan and with Peter Hall.

When Olivier died in 1989, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral vied for the right to conduct his funeral. He was a staunch patriot, a man of the right, proud of his historical achievement. But he’d play a lifelong Glaswegian communist, as he did in his final stage role in “The Party,” as readily as he impersonated his wartime hero Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding in the movie “Battle of Britain.”

Ziegler rightly makes much of Olivier’s dedication to acting, his physical daring, his intensity, his formidable presence, his courage in the face of a string of diseases and illnesses. He also seeks to lay to rest the endlessly repeated stories that Olivier was bisexual. His “appetite for women … was rapacious and enduring,” and he was as unfaithful to his third wife, Joan Plowright, as he was to her predecessors.

Ziegler is amusing about Olivier’s lack of cultural interests outside the theatre, his modesty and reliance on intuition rather than intellect. “I enjoy, in fact love, every line of Pinter as it falls on my ears,” he told Lady Pamela Berry, “but at the end of the evening I always dread someone asking me what the play’s been about.”

On the other hand, perhaps he makes rather too much of Olivier’s egocentricity, his ruthlessness, the neglect of the son he had with Jill Esmond, his readiness to take the credit for the work of others, his envy of colleagues, his suspicion of gifted young actors who seemed to threaten him.

These are all very human traits that become magnified by the “splinter of ice in the heart” that Graham Greene thought writers, and by implication all creative people, necessarily develop. Still his portrait of Olivier is convincing in all its contradictions and certainly fits the man I conversed with a couple of times.

There is, however, a serious shortcoming in this book. Ziegler is a trained lawyer and spent some years as a diplomat before becoming a publisher and biographer. He is not a man of the theatre and has little obvious passion for the stage or the cinema.

No plays are analyzed in any detail, and the accounts of performances come from others (most eloquently Ken Tynan and Michael Billington).

Significantly, in a “Biographer’s Afterword,” Ziegler compares Olivier not with a fellow artist but with Lord Louis Mountbatten, another establishment luminary about whom Ziegler has written extensively. This is nevertheless a highly readable book of considerable merit.