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Saturday 25 November 2017

More Confessions of an actor

Whatever about Laurence Olivier's dislike of his fellow Hollywood stars, he was a compelling screen presence

Paul Whittington

It's over 24 years since legendary thespian Laurence Olivier shuffled off this mortal coil, but his name has been in the papers so much in recent weeks that you'd think he was still treading the boards.

Next week a new biography based on hundreds of hours of unpublished interviews will reveal Olivier's bitchy disdain for many of his movie co-stars. More damaging still, the release a few weeks back of Vivien Leigh's love letters with Olivier prompted veteran actress Sarah Miles to reveal her 20-year affair with Sir Laurence in a lurid newspaper article.

Olivier and Vivien Leigh had a famously tempestuous marriage. She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and is also alleged to have been a sex addict: they both had lovers, and fought like cats and dogs. According to Sarah Miles's timeline, Leigh and Olivier had divorced by the time she and Sir Larry got together on the set of a film called Terms of Trial in 1962.

But, by then, Olivier had married Joan Plowright, who's still alive and cannot be greatly enjoying her late husband's return to the limelight. However, Plowright seems to have had a deep understanding of her husband's character and foibles. She once said that "if a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behaviour which you understand and you find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons".

There's always been speculation about Laurence Olivier's private life, some of it pretty wild. But there's no doubting his extraordinary talent, both as a stage actor, director and interpreter of Shakespeare. Although he claimed he was always more comfortable on the stage, Olivier was drawn to cinema at a young age, and later became a very accomplished screen actor.

In fact you could argue that his best film performances came late in his life, when he lost some of his classical stiffness and played a string of memorable villains. But Sir Laurence was always uncomfortable with Hollywood, and in Philip Ziegler's new biography, Olivier, we find out just how very uncomfortable he was.

Ziegler's book is based on a series of taped interviews that were originally intended for the actor's memoirs. But Olivier decided to leave some of his more vitriolic observations out of his 1982 autobiography Confessions of an Actor, and Ziegler's book reveals them for the first time.

Olivier famously clashed with Marilyn Monroe on the set of ill-fated 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, and in Zeigler's book we hear that his "hatred" for her was "one of the strongest emotions I had ever felt". Joan Fontaine, his co-star in Rebecca, was "insufferable", and Merle Oberon, who played Cathy to his Heathcliff, was "a silly little amateur".

Sir Laurence was at his most priggish, it seems, when confronted by Americans. He "didn't care to be taught acting" by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on the set of The Devil's Disciple, and famously suggested that method man Dustin Hoffman "try acting" on the set of Marathon Man.

And not everyone seems to have liked him, either. Sir Alec Guinness once called him "unpleasant, possibly even vindictive", and Orson Welles dismissed him as "seriously stupid".

When Larry wasn't giving out about his fellow stars and anyone else who got in his way, however, he was a compelling screen presence. His good looks and obvious talent brought him to Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he was mainly cast in literary costume dramas like Pride & Prejudice and That Hamilton Woman.

He had a wonderful voice and bearing, and his portrayal of Heathcliff in William Wyler's 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights earned him an Oscar nomination. But it was Alfred Hitchcock who got the best out of him early on, casting him as the arrogant and mysterious Maxim de Winter in his 1940 melodrama Rebecca.

In that film, his natural stiffness and reserve suited his character perfectly, and he made Max a much more ambivalent and shady figure than a more conventional film actor, Cary Grant for instance, might have done.

Just as Olivier's Hollywood career was threatening to take flight, however, war broke out in Europe. He joined the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and took flying lessons. But Olivier never saw action, and in 1944 he and Ralph Richardson were released from their military commitments and revived the Old Vic Theatre Company in London to huge acclaim.

Later that year, he made his most significant contribution to the war effort by adapting Henry V for film. Olivier's stylised and brilliantly realised rendering of Shakespeare's history play was a landmark film in many ways, and its patriotic undertones were seen as a rallying cry to the embattled British public. And he was superb as Prince Harry, an impetuous boy who becomes a leader of men.

He followed the success of Henry V with equally accomplished film adaptations of Hamlet and Richard III but, by the mid-1950s, Olivier's marriage to Vivien Leigh was failing and his career was in a steep decline. His clipped vowels and Shakespearean delivery seemed old-fashioned in the theatrical era of Osborne, Pinter and the 'angry young men', and his credentials as a film actor and director were dealt a heavy blow by the failure of his 1957 romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl.

As a project, it was doomed from the start: Laurence and Marilyn Monroe missed the point of one another entirely, and Olivier's advice that "all you have to do is be sexy, dear Marilyn" went down like a lead balloon.

When the finished film was savaged by the critics and did little or nothing at the box office, things looked bleak for the great actor. But help arrived from a most unexpected quarter. While The Prince and the Showgirl was still shooting, Olivier wrote to the West End's new star playwright John Osborne, asking if he "had anything for him".

Osborne wrote a play specifically for him about a failing music hall performer called Archie Rice: The Entertainer. It was a career-reviving triumph for Olivier on the stage, and in 1960 was brilliantly adapted for the screen by Tony Richardson. Olivier earned another Oscar nomination for his troubles, and the film re-established him as a cinema star.

Stage work kept him busy through most of the 1960s, as he helped found the National Theatre Company and starred in a variety of roles. But, as that decade wore on, he began appearing in more and more films, and had a number of notable screen successes.

He was unforgettable as the sneering Roman general Crassus in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, and even better as an implacable policeman in Otto Preminger's lesser known 1965 cult thriller Bunny Lake is Missing.

He was very good as a scheming crime writer opposite Michael Caine in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 thriller Sleuth, and great fun as Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Dr Moriarty in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1975).

But perhaps his most memorable screen performance of all was in John Schlesinger's 1976 thriller Marathon Man, playing an odious Nazi war criminal called Szell. And although he retired from the stage in 1973, he continued working in film and on television till the bitter end.

He was 81 and in poor health when he appeared as a crippled old soldier in Derek Jarman's 1989 film War Requiem. Sir Laurence Olivier died in July of that year, and his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, right beside the final resting place of his old friend Henry V.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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