The Magazine

Scratch an Actor

.  .  . and you’ll find an actor—like Laurence Olivier.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By HENRIK BERING
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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.