In the annals of villainy, Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III holds a special place: In the 1955 film version of Shakespeare’s play, Olivier’s Richard brims with malevolent energy, all the more lethal for being witty. In On Acting, his tricks-of-the-trade book from 1986, Olivier describes how he played up the comedic potential of the role by making Richard’s voice “the thin reed of a sanctimonious scholar,” high-pitched and prissy, as befits “the perfect hypocrite.” The result is Evil in its most beguiling form, “the baddie who makes you laugh with him.”

Regrettably, the written word was not Olivier’s forte. Apart from a few scattered insights, On Acting was a sloppy effort, as was his earlier autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982), the platitudes of which, according to the London Sunday Times, came “thudding out like stuffed bison.” Its reviewer went on to fault Olivier for writing in a “stage voice.” In his coquettish modesty, Olivier reminded critics of an old music-hall comedian, hiding behind a variety of the false noses he so enjoyed using on stage.

Undaunted by the challenge of his subject, Philip Ziegler vividly captures the excitement of Olivier’s stage presence. As critic Kenneth Tynan, surveying the actors of Olivier’s day, put it:

Between good and great acting is fixed an inexorable gulf, which may be crossed only by the elect. .  .  . [John] Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tight-rope; [Michael] Redgrave, with lunatic obstinacy, plunges into the torrent, usually sinking within yards of the opposite shore; Laurence Olivier polevaults over, hair-raisingly, in a single, animal leap. Great acting comes more naturally to him than to any of his colleagues.

Olivier’s friend and colleague Ralph Richardson spoke of his “splendid fury,” while John Mortimer stressed his ability to impart a sense of danger and unpredictability: “You simply had no idea what he was going to do next.”

His range was enormous, as proved by his fondness for taking on contrasting parts. Thus, in a double bill at the Old Vic in 1937, he played the title role in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Mr. Puff in Sheridan’s The Critic: “I wanted to be completely different in every performance. I like to appear as a chameleon,” he said. “Nothing has given me more pleasure than knowing I have tricked the audience and been on stage for more than five minutes without being recognized.”

In the early days of his career, Olivier broke with tradition. John Gielgud, with whom he alternated in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in the 1935 New Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet, represented the lyrical prewar tradition of almost singing Shakespeare’s blank verse. That was not Olivier’s way. Without pretending that it was prose, he believed that Shakespearean verse should be spoken, not sung: “I have always despised Shakespeare sung. I don’t think it is opera; I think it is speech.” For years, his blank-verse delivery was criticized.

Unlike Gielgud’s mellifluous tones, Ziegler notes, Oliver’s voice was a clarion call, “brass rather than strings.” To train it, we find him, at one point, roaring at the cows in the field at his country home, Notley Abbey. He was also the most physical of actors and loved taking risks. As Macbeth fighting Macduff, Olivier on one occasion packed his opponent off to the hospital—and it constantly had to be pointed out to him that Macbeth is supposed to be the loser of the fight: “I always fought with too much vigor. That came from a sort of pride,” he noted.

Like a portrait painter, Olivier worked from the outside in, whether with a physical gesture or some verbal tic, the opposite of the Lee Strasberg school, which requires its students to be their role rather than play it. Olivier’s Richard had the pedantic, reedy voice; his Hotspur had trouble with his Ws. For his Othello, a part he had long avoided as he thought his voice did not fit (he saw Othello as a black African rather than as a Moor), he made his voice drop an octave and built up his physique to the point where one critic saw him as embodying the whole African continent, as in Rubens’s allegory.

He would draw inspiration from the strangest sources: As Ziegler notes, the inspiration for Olivier’s celebrated scream in Oedipus Rex, when the tragic hero realizes that he has killed his father and slept with his mother, came from an animal. Among hunters, it is common practice, when hunting ermine, to scatter salt on the snow; when the little animal emerges, it will keep licking the salt until its tongue freezes onto the ice. To achieve the required intensity for his scream, Olivier would think of the ermine’s agony.

Ziegler stresses Olivier’s similarity to David Garrick, the leading 18th-century actor, in their approaches to acting. Both had a strong penchant for comedy. Said Olivier:

I personally feel that the difference between tragedy and comedy is far more thin than by most is imagined. .  .  . I wish, you see, to leave the audience in the position of the gods to whom, after all, our most searing tragedies must be things of comedy.

His offstage personality is harder to pin down, due to his disconcerting habit of assuming the hue of his surroundings. “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actor,” he wrote. Richardson and Gielgud had no idea who he was, notes Ziegler, and for Tynan, he seemed “a blank page.” He once told his son, “I don’t know who I am”; and he would complain about interviewers who “always want to give me eccentricities. They want me to be a quaint Dickensian and full of character, very romantic.” We get a careful account here of his three marriages, particularly his marriage to the unstable Vivien Leigh, which turned into a hell of Strindbergian proportions, but proved useful onstage.

As for his contribution to Britain’s National Theatre, the false modesty of Confessions tended to make Olivier appear to be the doorman rather than the director. Getting the project up and running was a Herculean task, Ziegler notes—made more difficult by the unpleasant political climate of the era. According to Christopher Plummer, the National’s actors “were a bunch of unwelcoming humorless malcontents whose socialist leanings not only were far left of Lenin but made Harold Wilson look like King Farouk.” Olivier was fundamentally a conservative who wanted to appear modern, which occasionally made him put on a play against his better judgment. Yet only a man of Olivier’s stature could have created the required company spirit to make the National Theatre a success. He was reluctant to give up the director’s job in 1973; his hatred of his successor, Peter Hall, “verged on the paranoid.”

No longer capable of taking on taxing stage roles due to failing health, his later years were devoted to films and television. He played the dying Lord Marchmain in the 1981 Granada version of Brideshead Revisited, in which Gielgud played Charles Ryder’s father. Typical of their ever-present rivalry, Olivier was jealous of Gielgud for getting the best lines.

His own personal deathbed scene was entirely in character: His night nurse would try to quench his thirst by squeezing half an orange in a gauze. At one point, a few drops ran down his cheek and into his ear, reminiscent of the scene in which Hamlet’s father is poisoned in his sleep by Claudius, causing Olivier to mutter: “It’s not f—ing Hamlet, you know.”

Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.

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