Is there any other name more closely associated with the craft of serious acting than that of Laurence Olivier? Probably not, although one could make a case for Ralph Richardson or Alec Guinness or John Gielgud (all British and all knighted for their achievements). However, it is Olivier and Olivier alone who stands out as the enduring symbol of thespian excellence. He starred on stage in legendary interpretations of Shakespeare’s greatest roles and was the founding director (1962-1973) of the British National Theatre. His film career was less exalted, although it did feature some outstanding performances, even in less-than-outstanding movies. Towards the end of his long life he was often gravely ill, but continued to work feverishly in material that was beneath him. Even then, in films as unspectacular as “Wild Geese II” (1985), he could still hold the screen with a glimmer of the athleticism and technique that made him so magnetic in his prime. And when he died in 1989 he was reputedly considering another gig, an actor’s actor until the end.
Laurence Kerr Olivier was born on May 22, 1907, in Dorking, England. He seemed born to be an actor, and from a very early age his parents encouraged his interest in acting and enrolled him in the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art. Although he possessed astonishing technique and had a genius for costumes and makeup, he remained resolutely down-to-earth: it was the critics who insisted on calling Olivier “Laurence.” With friends and anyone he introduced himself to, he was “Larry.”
After leaving the Central School, Olivier honed his talent at the Birmingham Repertory Company (1926-1928). Weaned on Shakespeare, he nevertheless made his big breakthrough in a contemporary work, Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” (1930). After making his film debut in an English production of “The Temporary Widow” (1930), he went to Hollywood, where made a few films, most notably “Westward Passage” (1932). Olivier hated the Hollywood system, however, and soon returned to England. He performed more Shakespeare and did a few films, but returned to America to play Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” (1939). His wife, an unknown and untested actress, also did an American picture that year. Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” and suddenly she was more famous than her famous husband.
Olivier and Leigh had a tumultuous relationship hardened by competitive jealousy. Olivier once again superseded his wife with big roles in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) and “Rebecca“ (1940), but he never scored as monumental a hit like Leigh’s “Gone with the Wind” (then again, there may not have ever been another hit as monumental as that film). He took over as co-director of the Old Vic Theater Company with Ralph Richardson from 1944 through 1949, and the two put together some renowned Shakespearean productions that made the crossover to film, including “Henry V” (1944) and “Hamlet” (1948).
Knighted in 1948, Olivier saved his best work for the stage, including his role as the third-rate vaudevillian in “The Entertainer,” which reached the screen in 1960. By this time he had divorced Leigh and married the actress Joan Plowright. Olivier focused on theater for the next dozen years, but returned to film with Oscar® nominated work in “Sleuth” (1972), “Marathon Man” (1976), and “The Boys from Brazil“ (1978). The last two films were particularly notable in that he played a Nazi in the former and a Nazi hunter in the latter. It was all make believe, of course, even to Olivier, who confessed in his 1982 autobiography that acting was nothing more than “good lying.”