Review

Olivier

by Terry Coleman



In the 1950s, other girls had crushes on Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue
and James Dean. My crush was Laurence Olivier --- maybe it was
because my father taught Shakespeare, but really I think it was his
beautiful voice, sensitive mouth, brooding Heathcliffian
eyes…you get the picture. I kept a scrapbook; I even wrote to
him, and he replied --- well, sort of: a blue aerogramme thanking
me for my kind letter and signed "L. Olivier." I wish I still had
it.

So you can see that I was disposed to be fascinated by OLIVIER, the
new biography by journalist Terry Coleman. Actually, this is the
first and only biography to be sanctioned by Sir Laurence's widow,
actress Joan Plowright, and the Olivier estate. The advantage of
"official" works, of course, is that the author gets access to all
sorts of formerly unavailable personal papers. The downside is that
he tends to be weighed down by the need to document endlessly,
explain copiously, and set the record straight. This is not a
fast-moving book. But it is a compelling and sometimes touching one
that lets us glimpse the private side of an honest-to-God
genius.

The view isn't always edifying. Olivier is revealed as
self-absorbed, vulnerable, flirtatious, excessive, sometimes
embarrassingly silly (in his letters to Vivien Leigh, his second
wife and grand passion) and surprisingly shrewd about business (I
remember being a bit shocked when Sir Laurence did American TV ads
for Polaroid, but it turns out that years earlier he had made a
deal for the production of Olivier cigarettes, giving him a lot of
free smokes and a hefty percentage of the take). A self-described
"liar," he isn't the easiest subject for a biographer to decipher,
though Coleman does his best to sort out the facts from the
embroidery.

Olivier could also be generous and devoted: The sad story of his
deteriorating relationship to the mentally unstable Leigh (she was
a victim of bipolar, also known as "manic," depression) often shows
him to be remarkably forbearing. The demise of the marriage took
years; it's not clear why --- loyalty, public relations? --- but
the circumstances were not made public at the time. I remember
being distressed by the breakup and blaming him (he had already
moved on to Plowright), but the truth is, Leigh had affairs as well
(a long one with actor Peter Finch) and they seem to have inflicted
equal-opportunity suffering.

The issue of sexuality is a principal one for Coleman. A less
respectful 1991 Olivier biography by Donald Spoto got a lot of play
for its "revelation" that the actor was bisexual and had a long
relationship with comedian Danny Kaye. In a seven-page Author's
Note, Coleman acknowledges the probability of a fleeting early
affair with a man (not Kaye) and observes that Olivier's on-stage,
on-screen appeal had an element of androgyny, but he devotes most
of the space to emphatic denials of Spoto's assertions. Indeed,
Olivier's bedroom prowess (extensive, on the evidence; he was
unfaithful to all three wives) appears to have been overwhelmingly
hetero. Although Coleman seems to me to protest a bit too much, his
evidence is persuasive --- and anyway, who cares? As Shakespeare
wrote in Henry V (and Sir Laurence spoke so eloquently in
his film of the play), "Nice customs curtsy to great kings," and
Olivier certainly achieved almost the status of royalty.

What OLIVIER doesn't really do is explore how the complex, flawed
man got to be a great actor (some would say the great actor)
of stage and film. In the '80s Sir Laurence did write his own books
on the subject (CONFESSIONS OF AN ACTOR and ON ACTING), neither of
which I've read; perhaps Coleman felt that his main brief was to
venture into the less charted territory of Olivier's intimate life.
Still, it's a pity not to have had more on the meat of his
profession. A hint of his far-sightedness: Although Olivier did not
care for Look Back in Anger, the subversive play by the
"angry young man" of British theatre, John Osborne, in 1956 he
nonetheless asked Osborne to write him something. The result was
The Entertainer, a signal departure for Olivier and one of
his greatest triumphs. There are glimpses in the book, too, of his
physical audacity; his perfectionism; his acuteness and courage not
only as an actor but as a director and artistic
administrator.

Olivier really did do everything in the theatre short of toting
flats and sewing costumes; he was a key player in the development
of Britain's National Theatre (one of the houses in the complex now
located on the South Bank of the Thames is named after him). But
Coleman spends far too long on the NT's protracted and highly
political struggle to be born; unless you're a true aficionado, it
unbalances the book.

More successful is his moving account of the last 20-odd years of
Olivier's life: I had no idea (nor did most of the world) that he'd
had a series of illnesses, many of them grave; that he suddenly
began to suffer from stage fright and memory loss; that his
stunning cameos (many in mediocre films) and full-scale late roles
(I'm thinking particularly of the TV films King Lear and
Brideshead Revisited, though he may be better known in the
U.S. as the sadistic Nazi dentist in Marathon Man) had been
managed despite these handicaps, with gallantry and reliable
brilliance. Even his address to Queen Elizabeth II (and the
assembled throng) at the opening of the Olivier Theatre was a
masterpiece.

Olivier died in 1989. He would have been "tickled pink," as his son
Richard noted, to have known that Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's
--- London's foremost Anglican institutions --- were competing over
who would get the glory of hosting his memorial service and housing
his ashes. His final exit, too, was terrific theatre.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 13, 2011

Olivier
by Terry Coleman

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2005
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 0805075364
  • ISBN-13: 9780805075366