Not so long ago, giants bestrode the British boards. In that theatrically golden 20th century, the stage could boast those wonderful knights, Sirs John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson. Close on their heels were Alec Guinness, John Mills, Paul Scofield, Trevor Howard and Peter O’Toole, among others. And all along there was that chameleon of genius, Noël Coward.
Still, the star that probably shone brightest in that constellation, the only one who was raised to baron, was Laurence Olivier (1907-89): matinee idol, movie star, gifted director and producer, in the end even a hologram, easily attaining posthumous immortality. Since boyhood he had wanted to be “the greatest actor in the world,” and damned if he did not achieve it, with some help from Shakespeare and the movies.
Not only was he the most dashing of actors, he was also the most seductive of human beings, tantrums notwithstanding. That fine actress Rosemary Harris remarked: “I don’t know anybody who had more sex appeal. Everybody, whatever sex you were, whether you were a cat, a dog or a mouse, you were in love with him.” Another lovely actress seconded her: “You were and are the dishiest man who ever lived.” Thus Claire Bloom, with whom he had a brief affair.
Certain rivalries and resulting jaundiced comments aside, he was greatly admired by fellow actors and directors, also critics and, of course, audiences. There are some 20 or 30 books about him, not counting many more in which he merely figures prominently. I suspect, however, that the latest biography, Philip Ziegler’s “Olivier,” may well be the best yet — perhaps even definitive — not only because it is so widely researched and readably written, but also because so much new material has become available to make such ample use of.
Several traits make a worthy biographer. (1) Affection for his subject, but not blind adulation. (2) An interesting personality with a winning style. (3) Neither excessive brevity nor tiresome long-windedness. (4) A judicious sense of what matters and what doesn’t. (5) Awareness that a portrait requires a suitable frame, i.e., attention to context and background. (6) A far-ranging erudition. (7) Maybe most important: a sense of humor. Ziegler, the author of 20 books, most of them biographies, qualifies on all seven counts.
Not much space is wasted on Olivier’s ancestry; the family name originated with French Huguenots who escaped to England. Gerard, Laurence’s cold and distant father, was a failed schoolmaster who switched to clergyman. The mother, Agnes, caring and encouraging, unfortunately died when the boy was 12. Unlike brother Dickie, elder sister Sybille was to provide lifelong support.
Larry was not an attractive child, what with spindly legs and beetling hairline giving him a lowbrow look. This may have led, Olivier speculated, to his future love of disguises. He did some acting at school, and his Brutus and Katherina (the Shrew) were noticed and lauded by such visiting dignitaries as the prominent actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the great actress Ellen Terry, the distinguished director Theodore Komisarjevsky. Another major actress, Sybil Thorndike, thought him “wonderful” as Katherina — “a bad-tempered little bitch.”
After some small parts elsewhere, it was at the Birmingham Rep, where he joined fellow actors Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson, that he became a man and an actor. He was a tireless worker: It took him two years to learn how to move onstage, and another two, how to laugh.
Richardson and Olivier’s stay at that theater initiated a long and fascinating relationship. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Ziegler’s book is its tracing the complicated interaction — sometimes friendly, sometimes jealous and cool — among Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud, which Ziegler neatly weaves into what is practically a history of the modern English theater. This involves countless friendships and enmities, apple polishing and backbiting among not only actors and directors, but also peers and politicians on theatrical boards, agent-producers like the mighty Binkie Beaumont, broadcast personalities and writers of all sorts: playwrights, critics, journalists, interviewers and what have you. Above all, there are liberal quotations from Olivier’s wives, children and anyone who knew him.
What sort of a man and actor was Larry, as Olivier liked to be known? Ziegler quotes one of the ablest evocations by Peter Brook, who directed him in an unsuccessful movie of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” and a successful, Continent-touring production of “Titus Andronicus,” which also starred his second wife, Vivien Leigh.
Brook wrote: “He was a strangely hidden man. On stage and on screen he could give an impression of openness, brilliance, lightness and speed. In fact, he was the opposite. His great strength was that of the ox. He always reminded me of a countryman, of a shrewd, suspicious peasant taking his time. . . . Once a conception had taken root in him, no power could change the direction in which the ox would pull the cart.”
Olivier emerges — perhaps qua peasant — extremely foulmouthed, but often blending four-letter words into something musical or poetic, a rondo or refrain, as at a dinner at which Laurence Harvey badmouthed Richardson, Gielgud and Scofield, eliciting Olivier’s outburst: “How dare you! Call yourself an actor? You’re not even a bad actor. . . . You can’t act at all, you [expletive], stupid, hopeless, sniveling little [expletive]-faced [expletive]!” (Another biographer, Roger Lewis, ups the expletives from three to six.) Olivier stormed out, but the next day sent Harvey 24 red roses.
Much about Olivier is revealed by his three marriages, all to actresses. (Ziegler mentions the rumors of homosexuality, but argues against them.) The first, to Jill Esmond, was almost a business deal. Two young actors teamed up for mutual support, for example traveling together to Hollywood. No lasting marriage, it was, however, a lasting friendship, although Olivier groused about the alimony: “She’s cost me £75,000 a coitus!” (Actually a saltier noun.)
The middle, long marriage to Vivien Leigh began as Olivier’s probably only true passion, with the pair playing Romeo and Juliet both on and off the stage. But it eroded with the years, what with Vivien’s nervous breakdowns, a lengthy and flaunted affair with Peter Finch (not that Larry was a saint) and the attrition of time. Also jealousy: When she won an Oscar, he wanted to bop her on the head with the statuette.
It was a mature marriage to sensible, down-to-earth Joan Plowright, basically stable, the wife supplying genuine support. But eventually this too went sour, largely through Olivier’s recklessness and jealousy when his career was falling short of hers.
Almost as significant was Olivier’s relationship with the brilliant critic Kenneth Tynan, when Olivier, after much maneuvering with the board of directors, became head of the National Theater. He picked for his dramaturge the combative Tynan, who became as much headache as help.
Olivier’s declining years make for sad but fascinating reading. Ziegler evokes them admirably, as he does the great acting successes, notably Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus, an almost scarily detailed Othello and the touchingly defiant, down-at-heel vaudevillian Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.” Not forgetting movies like “Wuthering Heights,” “Rebecca” and three Shakespearean adaptations either.
The biography is full of marvelous anecdotes; traces sovereignly the rivalries with Richardson, Gielgud and Olivier’s successor at the National, Peter Hall; and avoids the salacious. It is altogether a thorough and intelligent book: Read it.
By Philip Ziegler
Illustrated. 467 pp. MacLehose Press. $35.