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
Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier of Brighton (22 May 1907 11 July 1989) was an English actor and director, who was 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 performance as the title role in Hamlet (1948), which he also directed. Hamlet also won Best Picture (the only film 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 matched the feat for Life Is Beautiful fifty 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 was married for 20 years to Vivien Leigh and often starred with her on stage and screen. Often compared to Kenneth Branagh, another stage and screen star who directed himself in cinematic versions of Henry V and Hamlet. In what was perhaps the logical extreme to both their careers, Branagh netted an Academy Award nomination for playing Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, a film about the difficult production of The Prince and the Showgirl, which co-starred Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.
Laurence Olivier on TV Tropes:
- Fire Over England (1937)
- The Divorce of Lady X (1938)
- Wuthering Heights (1939) (Academy Award nomination)
- Pride and Prejudice (1940)
- Rebecca (1940) (Academy Award nomination)
- 21 Days (1940)
- 49th Parallel (1941)
- That Hamilton Woman (1941)
- Henry V (1944) (Honorary Academy Award) (also directed)
- Hamlet (1948) (Academy Award) (also directed)
- Richard III (1955) (Academy Award nomination) (also directed)
- The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) (also directed)
- Spartacus (1960)
- The Entertainer (1960) (Academy Award nomination)
- Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
- Othello (1965) (Academy Award nomination)
- Battle of Britain (1969)
- Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)
- Nicholas and Alexandra (1972)
- Sleuth (1972) (Academy Award nomination)
- Marathon Man (1976) (Academy Award nomination)
- A Bridge Too Far (1977)
- Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
- The Boys from Brazil (1978)
- The Jazz Singer (1980)
- Clash of the Titans (1981)
- Inchon (1981)
- The Bounty (1984)
Tropes associated with Laurence Olivier's work 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: He and Vivien Leigh appeared in many stage productions together but only three 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: 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.
- Don't Call Me "Sir": Despite being knighted (or given the equivalent) by at least five countries, and eventually being made a Baron, he insisted that others call him "Larry".
- Dyeing for Your Art: 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 controversially, 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.
- Method Acting: 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 hes to play walks, stands, sits, dresses; he has to hear in his memorys ear the voice of the man whom hes 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 William 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. Hed try it this way, then that, looking at the guest, then at the chair, doing it with a host's 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: 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: 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: While it's hard to say that 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.
- Romance on the Set: Met Vivien Leigh while filming Fire Over England, and Joan Plowright during the stage production of The Entertainer.
- Shakespearian Actors: He was considered to be 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. And then there was the apparent Caribbean accent he used in Othello which Olivier admitted was an exotic accent of his own invention.