Brilliant, vicious, magnetic, dedicated, massively insecure, and bitterly competitive, Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was endowed with a talent and a jealousy unchallenged by his contemporaries. In the new biography, “Olivier” (Quercus Publishing, 460 pages), prize-winning author Phillip Ziegler virtually leaves no stone unturned as he examines not only what made one of our most famous – and occasionally infamous – actor/directors of the 20th Century tick but also the work that influenced generations of actors.

Ziegler says, "I have always been stage-struck and wanted to write a theatrical biography. At age 80, I felt I could at last indulge myself. Sir Laurence Olivier was, by far, the most tempting subject because his contribution was so massively important that the theater we enjoy today would be quite different and less rich if he had never existed."

Covering the six-decade career of the handsome, debonair megastar of stage (West End, Broadway), film (winning an Oscar for directing), and TV was made considerably richer with Ziegler's access to a 50-hour audio archive of reminiscences "packed with grumpy, obscene frankness." The author also draws from unreleased interviews, aided by Olivier's last wife/widow Joan Plowright; his son, Tarquin; and peers.

A colorful, thoughtful portrait of a complicated and often controversial man/star emerges, warts and all. Olivier was characterized by intimates as a bully, lush, philanderer, genius, huge star with an ego to match, and, in a revealing moment from this larger-than-life personality, "a hollow man."

Olivier's personal and professional life often manifested itself in an explosive temper, which, according to life-long friend and luminous star Ralph Richardson, translated into "a splendid fury" onstage/screen. Others note that it was this "danger" that produced such acclaim in his portrayals of Hamlet, Richard III and Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights.”

Ziegler chronicles Olivier's life in an accessible road map that navigates through his celebrity, affairs, marriages (Jill Esmond (10 years), Vivien Leigh (20 years), Miss Plowright (1961 to his death), divorces, his respect and disdain for certain stars, his acting technique, directing, and work at the helm of the National Theatre – aided by those who also shaped the Olivier era: Noel Coward, director William Gaskill (who worked alongside Olivier as a founding director of the National), John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Hall, John Osbourne and Kenneth Tynan. He delves deeply into how Olivier reached deep into his psyche to unleash such passion and power.

After much publicity, Olivier was chosen by M-G-M in 1933 to star in his first Hollywood film opposite Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina,” but after a meeting, she rejected him (in favor of her former lover, silent-screen legend John Gilbert. The rejection not only stunned but embarrassed Olivier. However, it had little effect on his career. In 1939, Samuel Goldwyn cast him as Heathcliff opposite great beauty Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights.” It wasn't smooth sailing. Director William Wyler was heavily critical of his overacting. One scene was shot 72 times, with Wyler stating after each take, "Better!", which drove his star into a frenzy. Olivier acknowledged that the experience, especially observing David Niven's understated but powerful performance in the throwaway role of milquetoast Edgar, taught him how film acting differed from stage acting.

He was Oscar-nominated but at the 1940 Awards lost to Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”). Miss Leigh won for “Gone with the Wind.” Dazed and distraught over the insult, on the way home he seized her Oscar. Years later, he told Tarquin, "It was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it. I was insane with jealousy."

By the mid-40s, Olivier had achieved international stardom in “Rebecca,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Hamlet” and became an accomplished a director with the film versions of “Henry V,” “Hamlet” and “Richard III.”

During WWII, Olivier, at the bequest of Winston Churchill, served Britain secretly as a "spy." His Brit contemporaries accused him of lacking patriotism for remaining in Hollywood when war broke out rather than return home and sign up; but he worked secretly for the Special Operations Executive, assigned by British ambassador Lord Lothian and acclaimed film producer Sir Alexander Korda, assigned to MI5, the Security Service. He apparently made movies, thereby winning Yanks' hearts and minds.

His scandalous affair with Miss Leigh ended his first marriage. He and Miss Leigh were both stunning beautiful and had been called "the iconic couple." But their marriage was as glamorous and as tumultuous and tragic as any in show business history. Its 20 years rivaled, maybe even surpassed, some of his theatrical swagger and drama. Ziegler gives the highs, devastating lows, jealousies, abuse, mental illness and the bitter ending. It appears both were at wit's end. He was a shameless cheater throughout their marriage (having a not-so-secret affair off and on for years with actress Sarah Miles, who'd fallen in love with him, she has said, when she was 11 and saw him in “Wuthering Heights”). When Miss Leigh would confront him, there were bitter arguments that often led her into great bouts of depression where she'd threaten to kill herself.

Long after the romance waned, Miss Leigh announced quite unceremoniously that she no longer loved Olivier, who wrote, "I felt as if I had been told that I had been condemned to death." He described the period after their split as "the darkest, most lonely time" of his life.

Over the years, Olivier displayed more than egomaniacal bad taste when speaking of Miss Leigh, telling sad and disturbing stories. He once admitted that he thought, following a row where he pushed her and she fell against a fireplace, he had killed her. When she came to, he revealed that he swore if he didn't leave her, he was afraid he would kill her. Sadly, they were pitiable creatures.

Olivier's career continued to soar. At the height of his fame, for a pittance in pay, Olivier created a world-class venue, the National, which attracted and still attracts the luminaries of English theater.

Maggie Smith was one of the few players who stood up to Olivier. He hand-picked her for Desdemona in Othello at the National even though she'd made her name in comedies. Miss Smith said she was reluctant to take the role because she was in such awe of Olivier. That awe, evidently quickly dissipated, because soon she found the courage to assert herself and, in a battle of wills, hold her own against him.

In rehearsals, Oliver became enraged by Smith’s refusal to accept what he termed "sensible suggestions on playing the role." She complained vociferously of his distance from her onstage, protesting, "I've come all the way from Venice to see you . . . What do you want me to do? Back away in fucking horror?" She complained how poorly she and others were being lit, but that when Olivier made entrances "the light goes up, and we're blinded." At one performance when Olivier was to slap her with a piece of parchment, he was so angry that he punched her in the jaw. She fell to the boards and seemed to lose consciousness. In the wings, the horrified stage manager was about to bring down the curtain when she rose to the occasion and continued. The thunderous applause at her bow almost outweighed his, which really piqued him. Miss Smith never forgave Olivier. They were only to act together one other time. When a producer told her, "He is a great monstre sacré," she replied, "Monstre, yes!"

There's plenty more dish. Because he was enamored of Marilyn Monroe, Olivier wanted her as his co-star in “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957), the film adaption of Terrence Rattigan's play, The Sleeping Prince. It didn't sit well with him that he had to give top-billing to her. The nightmare of shooting delays and numerous takes because of unpreparedness and absences due to feigned illnesses soon soured his intention of having an affair. Olivier also disdained Method acting, and Monroe was under the spell of her Svengali, drama instructor Lee Strasberg, who'd sent his wife Paula to help guide the actress through shooting. It was a misguided adventure. He said of Monroe, "She had the brains of a possum . . . teaching her how to act was like teaching Urdu to a marmoset. She was incapable of learning five lines by heart." Another time, he called her "a "spoiled, contaminated fat slug!" On set, he'd lose his temper and berate her savagely. Monroe, frightened of him, became withdrawn. Nothing seemed to work, especially the constant interference of Mrs. Strasberg. When Olivier received news that Strasberg was arriving on set to work with Monroe, he shouted, "I'm the fucking director of this fucking film. I'm the fucking producer too. I won't allow Lee Strasberg on set. Call the studio police and have him stopped." In spite of his hatred of Monroe, later he admitted the camera had a love affair with her and commented he was "flabbergasted (at) how wonderful she was."

In a 2006 radio interview, Miss Plowright responded to allegations of Olivier's mistresses and homosexual affairs, stating there was no need to defend his memory. "His performances, his greatness as an artist are there," she said. Referring to Olivier's battle with "demons," which reached a peak in the years of illness leading up to his death, she stated, "If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behavior which you understand, and you find a way not to be swept overboard by them."

In 1979, the Motion Picture Academy presented Olivier with honorary Oscar for his body of work. He was introduced in a rare appearance since his last film 13 years earlier by Cary Grant, who called him "a peer among his peers" and stated "he represents the ultimate in acting, he's the actor's most admired actor." Olivier did nothing to quell the one-minute-and-20-second standing ovation until he threw a kiss to the audience. The great humility and appreciation he exhibited in that moment, not to mention the eloquence of his remarks, awed host Johnny Carson and the celebrity audience.

Olivier had four children: two sons, two daughters. In his 1993 memoir, “My Father, Laurence Olivier,” son Tarquin stated that Olivier virtually ignored him and his siblings on his marriage to Miss Plowright; however, he also wrote that rumors about his father became "more outrageous with each new biography" and dismissed gossip of affairs with Danny Kaye and Kenneth Tynan as "unforgivable garbage."

Olivier's career was filled with accolades, such as his 1947 knighthood (the youngest actor to be so honored), 11 Oscar nominations (winning Best Actor for “Hamlet”), a 1947 honorary "outstanding achievement" Oscar for “Henry V,” 11 BAFTA nominations/three wins, a Tony, and nine Emmy nominations/four wins.

In “Olivier,” Ziegler, with amazing vigor and discipline, creates a complete portrait of the man and the star that gives us a deeper understanding of the heroic and tragic figure that made up this most fascinating of stars whose performances not only transformed the art of acting but also left audiences enthralled.


Key Subjects: 
Olivier, Phillip Ziegler, Joan Plowright, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier
Ellis Nassour
July 2014