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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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.