Olivier: A book review by Bob Morris

Philip Ziegler
MacLehose Press (2013)

A comprehensive biography of a magnificent performer who was large, who contained multitudes

Prior to reading Philip Ziegler’s biography, what I knew about Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was limited almost entirely to seeing several of the films in which he appeared, many of them for the first time on the AMC channel. They include Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice (both in 1940), The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth (1944), Richard III (1955), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The Merchant of Venice, The Entertainer and Spartacus (both in 1960), and Marathon Man (1976). I never saw him appear on stage but, of course, over the years read about his great triumphs, mostly on stages in Great Britain. I knew almost nothing about his personal life, other than the fact that he was married to Vivian Leigh (1940-1960) and later to Joan Plowright (from 1961 until his death of renal failure in 1989).

These are the questions I had in mind when beginning to read Ziegler’s biography:

o By what process did he develop his extraordinary skills as an actor
o His favorite plays among those in which he appeared
o His favorite films among those in which he appeared
o Other prominent actors whom he admired most…and why
o What he was like to work with as a fellow actor
o What he was like to work with as a director
o Others with whom he most enjoyed working
o Others with whom he least enjoyed working
Note: John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson (and perhaps Kirk Douglas) would probably be on both lists for reasons that reveal more about Olivier than they do about them.

I am deeply grateful to Ziegler for all that I learned about Olivier’s life and work insofar as these subjects are concerned. I am also grateful to him for what I learned about other dimensions of his life and work:

o His indifference to parenthood and neglect of his four children
o Why he was dismissed by the Old Vic theatre company
o His up-and-down, down-and-up relationship with the National Theatre
o Why two of his marriages failed but the third succeeded
o His inability to delegate authority
o According to those who knew him best, what his defining characteristics were as an actor
o And as a person
o His stage fright and other anxieties and insecurities
o The personal relationships he cherished most
o His struggles with Leigh’s bi-polar temperament and behavior
o Olivier’s sexuality
o His extravagant praise and scathing criticism, often during the same conversation
o In later years, his health issues and how he dealt with them

The title of this review is explained by the fact that, as I re-read this book prior to setting to work on this review of it, I was again reminded of Walt Whitman’s declaration in “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” The same can be said of Laurence Olivier both on and off the stage as well as on and off the screen.

I agree with John Simon’s concluding comments in his review in The New York Times: “The biography is full of marvelous anecdotes; traces sovereignly the rivalries with Richardson, Gielgud, and Olivier’s successor at the National, Peter Hall; and avoids the salacious. It is altogether a thorough and intelligent book.” Presumably most of those who read it will agree with Simon. My only regret is that I never had the opportunity to see Olivier perform on stage but at least several of his best films remain. I shall revisit a few soon, probably Henry V first.

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