Creator / Laurence Olivier

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And though I'm no Olivier. If he fought Sugar Ray...He would say that the thing ain't the ring, it's the play...And though I could fight, I'd much rather recite...that's entertainment.

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier of Brighton (May 22, 1907 – July 11, 1989) was an English actor and director, considered, in his lifetime, to be the greatest actor of his generation. On stage he was unanimously seen as a genius actor and director. In cinema, he hit a peak in his early films, including an Academy Award-winning title role of Hamlet, which he also directed. Hamlet also won Best Picture (the only movie spoken in Shakespeare's dialogue to win to date) and earned Olivier a Best Director nomination (making him the only person to direct himself to an Oscar until Roberto Benigni won an Oscar for acting in Life Is Beautiful 50 years later).

As a film director, he's best known for his three William Shakespeare adaptations. In addition to Hamlet, there's Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955), both of which were shot in Technicolor, featuring impressive cinematic spectacle for its time, and still considered among the best Shakespeare films. His turn as Richard III in particular proved to be one of his most iconic and much parodied roles, famous for his Breaking the Fourth Wall monologues to the camera. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar each time and it more or less cemented him in Pop-Cultural Osmosis as "the" Shakespearean actor.

He also received two honorary Academy Awards: the first in 1947 for Outstanding Achievement for his Henry V, which he produced, directed and starred in; and a Lifetime Achievement award in 1979. Other roles that attracted Academy Award nominations but not wins included Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940),note  the title role in The Entertainer (1960), the title role in Othello (1965), Andrew Wyke in Sleuth (1972), Dr Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976), and Ezra Lieberman in The Boys from Brazil (1978).

In what was perhaps the logical extreme to both their careers, Kenneth Branagh netted an Academy Award nomination for playing Olivier in My Week With Marilyn.

Official site


Tropes associated with Laurence Olivier include:

  • Byronic Hero: He played Heathcliff, Richard III, Maxim de Winter, Hamlet, and his take on Nelson in That Hamilton Woman was also quite Byronic, brooding, dark and intense. He was also a real-life one.
  • Creator Couple: invoked He and Vivien Leigh appeared in many stage productions together but only two films.note  That Hamilton Woman is considered the best and it was Winston Churchill's favorite film. He also worked several times with Joan Plowright, notably both the play and film of The Entertainer.
  • Doing It for the Art: invoked Nearly bankrupted himself helping to run the National Theatre. This is a major reason Olivier took so many subpar film roles in his later years.
  • Dramatic Pause: This anecdote by Peter Ustinov, Olivier's Spartacus co-star, on the Jack Paar Show demonstrates Olivier's tendencies toward this.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: invoked Olivier occasionally did this, most famously his stage version of Othello. He wore full-body make-up, lifted weights and spent months working with a vocal coach to lower his voice an entire octave. More constoversially, he dyed himself again to play the Mahdi in Khartoum, to look more Arab.
  • Large Ham: Frequently labeled as such by detractors. Granted, Olivier was a classically trained stage actor, and it did become his default style in Shakespeare adaptations or his paycheck roles. But anyone watching Olivier in, say, The Entertainer or Marathon Man, or his own favorite, Wyler's Carrie note  or in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing would know he was capable of more nuanced performances. It should also be noted that Olivier was such a great stage actor that he found acting for films harder than many other Hollywood stars since he found it hard to dial down his instinctive stagecraft for the cameras, and as a constant touring stage actor with a film career, he had to shift and juggle registers, something that actors of later generation (and Method Acting) were able to do more easily. Olivier credited William Wyler for teaching him how to act for films and felt his films with him were his best.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor: invoked
    • Despite playing Nazis and cruel emperors, he was known as a very friendly, down to earth guy in real life to the point that he hated being called by any of his royal titles and preferred to be addressed as Larry. He was such a nice guy that even Marlon Brando, who was known as a big jerkass, couldn't bring himself to seduce Vivien Leigh when they were married. Dustin Hoffman has said that, contrary to rumors that he and Olivier didn't get along while making Marathon Man, Olivier and wife Joan Plowright took Hoffman to dinner several times, and presented him with Olivier's personal copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare once filming ended. Even when he was known for a Hair-Trigger Temper and was capable of swearing a blue streak when agitated, it was mostly when people insulted his friends and loved ones in his presence. One of Olivier's biographers records him unleashing a savage Cluster F-Bomb on Laurence Harvey for insulting John Gielgud in his presence.
    • He could, however, also be quite mean to his female co-stars. He hated Merle Oberon, who was Cathy to his Heathcliff in the Samuel Goldwyn Wuthering Heights, and treated her badly. He was also irritated with Joan Fontaine on Rebecca and complained to Alfred Hitchcock, "she can't act, old boy!" Likewise, Stanley Kubrick ran into troubles in Spartacus when Olivier and his Arch-Enemy Charles Laughton were costars. Kubrick assigned Peter Ustinov to keep them from killing each other as they engaged in Ham-to-Ham Combat.
  • Method Acting: invoked He supposedly hated method acting or rather what came to pass for it. He actually was very good friends with Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan and certainly did appreciate modern theatre (such as Stanislavsky, Chekhov, Peter Brook) but he found the exaggerated and headlines-grabbing nature of method acting odd.
    • This bias was confirmed and reinforced during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (which he directed and played one of the title roles). Marilyn Monroe proved difficult for Olivier, since Marilyn's coach Paula Strasberg would insist she employ all the Stanislavskian techniques even in a read-through. More or less every director who worked with Marilyn after she signed up with the Strasbergs admitted she was hard to work with.
    • Also, a story goes that, when filming Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night in order to appear tired for a scene. Olivier was unimpressed by the show and said "Why not try acting, dear boy? It's easier".note  Incidentally, Elia Kazan, one of the pioneers behind the method, defended Olivier's approach:
    Elia Kazan: Larry needs to know first of all how the person he’s to play walks, stands, sits, dresses; he has to hear in his memory’s ear the voice of the man whom he’s going to imitate. I lived across the street from him at the time I was directing his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, and would often drop over to see him. Larry was working with Willy Wyler on Sister Carrie and, as ever, concentrating on what might seem to “us” to be insignificant aspects of his characterization. I remember pausing outside a window late one Sunday morning and, undetected, watching Larry go through the pantomime of offering a visitor a chair. He’d try it this way, then that, looking at the guest, then at the chair, doing it with a hosts flourish, doing it with a graceless gesture, then thrusting it brusquely forward...always seeking the most revealing way to do what would be a quickly passing bit of stage business for any other actor...Which way is better? As in all art, both.
  • Money, Dear Boy: invoked Trope Namer and page quote source. It was the reason he gave for appearing in Inchon (which netted him the second of his two Razzies). His explicit reason for being less selective with his roles late in life and starting doing film roles like Inchon – which he hated making – just for the money was that after he was forced out of his job as director of the National Theatre, he was worried that he would die and his family would be left with nothing — he was building an inheritance for them.
  • Old Shame: invoked Olivier had many rotten films to choose from, but he seemed to particularly hate the musical The Beggar's Opera, due to his contentious relationship with director Peter Brook, and The Jazz Singer, which he said "oozes sentiment like pus," adding "I never saw anything, heard anything, read anything so absolutely awful." The only films he really liked were the ones he made with William Wyler who he noted taught him how to act for films.
  • Playing Against Type: invoked While it's hard to say Olivier, with his diverse selection of roles, had a "type," his appearance in John Osborne's The Entertainer counts. Besides playing a seedy musical hall comedian, Olivier's involvement gave credibility to Osborne and the Royal Court Theatre, who were considered disreputable outsiders among England's stage community. Afterwards, establishment actors like John Gielgud and Alec Guinness queued to appear at the Royal Court!
  • Playing Gertrude: His film version of Hamlet is the Trope Namer.
  • The Rival:
    • John Gielgud. The two appeared in a stage production of Romeo and Juliet together in the '30s, clashed over acting styles and became the two preeminent Shakespearean actors of their day. The two initially disliked each other, but grew into Vitriolic Best Buds later in life. By most accounts, he had a similar relationship with Ralph Richardson.
    • Averted with Sir Michael Redgrave, who was a good friend of Olivier's and even acted in Olivier's production of Uncle Vanya. Olivier, Redgrave, Richardson and Gielgud was considered the finest Shakespearean Actors of the time.
    • On the other hand, he loathed Charles Laughton and the feeling was mutual. The two Arch-Enemy were costars on Spartacus and filming them both on the set was too much even for Stanley Kubrick to handle and so he delegated referee duty to Peter Ustinov.
  • Romance on the Set: invoked Met Vivien Leigh while filming Fire Over England, and Joan Plowright during the stage production of The Entertainer.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: If his acceptance speech of an honourary Oscar at the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony is anything to go by. Actually, it is said that this speech was intended as a little dig at the American Academy over how they would applaud anything even if they didn't understand it. However, judging by some of his other interviews and comments, he really was that poetic.
  • Shakespearian Actors: He was considered to be the one of the greatest, and alongside Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in acclaim as a "theatrical knight". Likewise, he attained fame for his Shakespeare films, and his take on Richard III was especially iconic.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: He occasionally put on ridiculous accents for some of his roles. Like 49th Parallel where he plays a Canadian trapper and has an accent that is supposed to sound like Canadian-French-English, and then his weird nasal accent for Khartoum where he plays the Mahdi. His portrayal of General MacArthur in Inchon has been likened to a bad impression of W.C. Fields.

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