Laurence Olivier: The Tragic Comedian

In a dark moment, Laurence Olivier often reached for a laugh. His lofty, somewhat burdensome reputation as his century’s greatest dramatic actor belies the mercurial essence of his craft, which was to seize upon the humanity in each of his roles, often meaning the humor. British drama critic James Agate said that Olivier “was a comedian by instinct, a tragedian by art,” but the actor himself would have gone further, saying that it was in laughter, not thundering speeches, that a character is revealed. Olivier’s work on film may be just a sliver of a career spent mostly on the stage, but its variety provides a fine opportunity to admire his full dramatic range, including his powerful ability to mingle humor with the qualities of sorrow, majesty, despair, or evil.

Olivier’s acting technique was anything but invisible, and certainly not unusual in his generation. Famously, he worked from the outside in. He completed the look of a character with makeup or accessories, and once he felt that he knew the role, he practiced each line until he had perfected it: finding the meaning through, not despite, repetition. He had an immaculate, actually intimidating power of control over the modulation of his voice, following his fastidious training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in the 1920s, and he was known to rehearse dialogue for stage appearances by bellowing at the cattle in the grounds of Notley Abbey, the rural home he shared with his second wife, Vivien Leigh, from 1944 until their divorce in 1960. When he came to direct both plays and films, his technique reflected his acting practice—he would perform the role for his actors, to direct by example.

Olivier’s career combined film as well as stage work from 1930, when he made his first feature film in Berlin, starring opposite Lillian Harvey. He would continue to work in British and American studios right up until his death in 1989, both as an actor and as the director of seven films adapted from classic plays. Once Stanislavski’s Method began to flood Hollywood in the 1950s, Olivier’s practices seemed at best old-school and at worst superficial—an outmoded form of pretence rather than uninhibited performance. He was more than once confronted with and infuriated by the inside-out workings of Method actors (notably when appearing opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man), but he was never out-acted by them. Olivier often said that it was necessary for him to love each character he played, whether a despicable Richard III, drawing us into his sinister confidence with his brazen confessions, or a sleazy Archie Rice in The Entertainer papering over the cracks in his psyche with a breathless stage patter, as involuntary as a nervous tic. In this place where his own sympathies met the role you can see where the outside-in and the inside-out techniques fuse. Olivier also came to inhabit the roles he was playing fully; he simply took a different route to the same destination.

“His performances had a quality of natural, rapid intelligence—the sense of an idea embraced and fully understood in an instant.”

Top of post: Hamlet; above: Henry V

Nevertheless, it often seemed that his characters came easily to him, and not just in those popular anecdotes in which he seized on a physical characteristic, a beard or an item of clothing, as key to a portrayal. He was happiest in a “mask,” and reveled in false noses and wigs, for example choosing a Ronald Colman mustache to hide his nerves when playing opposite a young Michael Caine in Sleuth. Once, for a play at the National Theatre, he scoured markets for his character’s perfect watch strap, and even borrowed a cardigan and pipe to look the part for a TV interview—finding it necessary to costume up to play the grand man of the theater. He was an energetic actor, capable of great physical agility, as well as explosions of what Ralph Richardson called “splendid fury,” and yet his performances had a quality of natural, rapid intelligence—the sense of an idea embraced and fully understood in an instant. Time and again, theatrical critics found fault with him for speaking Shakespearean blank verse not as if it were rarefied, melodious poetry but as if it were crystal-clear prose. Olivier saw through the text to the man. His haunting, elegant film of Hamlet, the second film he directed, following his vigorous Henry V, was rich in Freudian complexity, but he had the nerve to introduce it simply as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”—a line he confessed he had cadged from a Clark Gable movie. Olivier’s heavily edited adaptation had been stripped of fat. “I see it as an engraving rather than an oil painting,” he said of his decision to shoot in monochrome, although truthfully he was in dispute with Technicolor (following the production of Henry V). Olivier’s Hamlet, with his ice-white blond hair and soliloquies whispered in voice-over, becomes the center of reflection amid the whirling corruption of Elsinore Castle, which is surveilled by a prowling camera. In this context Hamlet’s wordplay has the leaden quality of a reproach, not the airiness of a flight of fancy. Olivier’s portrayal of destabilizing melancholy was only deepened, not leavened, by the onset of an “antic disposition,” and he finds only the bleakest of comedy in Shakespeare’s text.

It’s certain that Olivier was a precocious Shakespearean talent. He had his first stage triumph as a young boy, aged nine, playing Brutus in a school production of Julius Caesar. Other schoolboy actors have been praised for their debuts no doubt, but among the voices hymning the young Olivier’s portrayal were such heroes of the Victorian and Edwardian stage as Ellen Terry and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (they had been invited by Olivier’s very well-connected drama master). If his future glories were not yet assured, they were at least something more than a pipe dream.

Yet he little imagined a career on-screen. As a rising star of the British theater, Olivier was wary of the cinema, and sniffy about its capacity as an art form, but even in his earliest screen performances, his instincts about character, and his comic skill, counter any latent tendency to overact. If Greta Garbo had not vetoed his appearance in Queen Christina at the last minute, preferring her former lover John Gilbert as the romantic male lead instead, Olivier might have got a more secure foothold in Hollywood in the early thirties. But playing opposite Gloria Swanson in the Ealing talkie Perfect Understanding, Olivier seems completely at ease in the kind of sophisticated, verbose, and sexually aware comedy that would find favor in that decade. He’s also glossily handsome, whereas in later films his heavy brow and thin mouth could sometimes look cruel (or in his words: “My mouth is like a tortoise’s arse. It’s an absolute slit”), and he appears relaxed enough to be genuinely charming.

“When asked by Wyler to tone down his theatrical flourishes for the camera, Olivier snarled: ‘I suppose this anaemic little medium can’t stand anything great in size like that.’ ”

Wuthering Heights

It’s a mode he expanded in The Divorce of Lady X (1938), a ritzy Technicolor screwball produced by Alexander Korda in which Merle Oberon’s minxy spinster runs rings around his diffident lawyer: a perplexing character whose courtroom misogyny is balanced by a private naivete in matters of the heart. The opening scene plays out like a Debrett’s-approved take on the Walls of Jericho scene in It Happened One Night, which is to say it is far funnier than it ought to be. Elsewhere, proposing desperately to Oberon as he strains and twists from the seat of his motorcar, or covering his shameful blushes with paperwork at his desk, Olivier perfects the portrait of a young lover as a gentleman-goofball.

The cinema could offer room for more of Olivier’s range, however, and he was offered a chance to display his powers in 1939, playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for the master perfectionist William Wyler. Olivier had not been the first choice for the role, and he was put out that Leigh was not chosen as Cathy, so put out that he bridled at working with Oberon (“we spat at each other,” he recalled) despite their previously simpatico working relationship on Lady X. He growled at Wyler too. When asked to tone down his theatrical flourishes for the camera, Olivier snarled: “I suppose this anaemic little medium can’t stand anything great in size like that.” Wyler knew how to return that fire, though. On one occasion Olivier complained about having repeated himself for seventy-two takes: “I’ve done it calm, I’ve shouted, I’ve done it angry, I’ve done it sad, standing, sitting down, fast, slow—how do you want me to do it?” “Better,” snapped Wyler, providing a punchline that surely Olivier could only envy. And yet, soundstage grizzles aside, Olivier’s performance as Heathcliff is memorably dynamic: ferocious one minute, cool the next. It’s a tempestuous portrayal of a man mistreated by the world, and governed by the fieriest emotions, by love, hate, grief, and revenge. Perhaps the passions of Emily Brontë’s great lover were stoked at least partially by professional acrimony, but we’ll never truly know. We know also that Olivier came to regret his “frightfully pompous . . . overwhelmingly opinionated” behavior during the production, and years later he turned in another great and tender performance for Wyler, as the lovelorn hero of Carrie, a man brought to his knees by love.

Wuthering Heights was a great success, of course, and the following year Olivier triumphed with two more of literature’s most glowering lovers: a smoldering Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and an enigmatic Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. Just as Hollywood embraced Olivier, however, he had cause to resent being there. And not just because he had to sit on his own jealousy while Leigh won the best actress Oscar for Gone with the Wind. Olivier was not a very political man, but he was a natural patriot, and when the Second World War broke out he yearned to return home and enlist in the RAF, although he was too old to sign up at that time and several friends advised him to stay in the U.S. He stayed put and started to take flying lessons, but his national loyalty soon found an outlet on-screen. He made a series of appearances in patriotic films, from his largely comic turn as a French-Canadian trapper in 49th Parallel to playing a flying ace in the caper Q Planes (and on that occasion, ceding most of the laughs to his good friend Ralph Richardson), doing his bit for the war effort as a movie star, albeit a reluctant one.

Best remembered from this run are a pair of historical fables that exploited both his passion for his country and that for his costar Leigh: the spectacular Armada drama Fire over England and better yet That Hamilton Woman. In the latter, Olivier as the bellicose admiral evinces his best warrior pose, which is softened by his adulterous passion for Leigh’s bewitching Emma Hamilton into a truly touching portrait of “Nelson in love.” By this point, the two were finally married, and in fact it would be their last appearance together on film. Nevertheless the love scenes in That Hamilton Woman, and the depth of feeling between the two newlyweds, seem to exorcise the angst of what Olivier called their “furtive life, lying life” beforehand, when they had conducted their relationship in semi-privacy from their respective spouses. No less a person than Winston Churchill acclaimed it as his favorite film, and in his opinion the best about war ever made. He watched it seven times and sent a copy to Stalin, who swiftly became another fan. It was with this feather in his cap that Olivier traveled to England to join the RAF. 

That Hamilton Woman

Olivier’s respectable service in the air notwithstanding, he had battle-hardened his image, and would become one of the screen’s most memorable soldiers. Not least in the first of his three Shakespeare films, which he directed, starred in, and produced. In 1944, Olivier unforgettably filmed Henry V as a rousing wartime call to action for “England, and Saint George!”, shot in Ireland in blistering primary Technicolor. Olivier’s youthful Henry contained all the energy, clear-speaking, and comic vitality he had brought to the stage, and he was confident enough in his vision of the play to refuse the suggestion of shooting in modern dress to underline the patriotic message. Instead, the way the film opens out from its (very funny) prologue in the “this wooden O” of the Globe, and the way the camera pulls back and back as Olivier delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech, gave the adaptation all the modernity it needed for the audience to draw a line between the text and their own “scambling and unquiet time.”

Later in his career, Olivier was given less heroic, or vigorous, soldiers to play, from his pointed caricature of officer-class callousness in Oh! What a Lovely War to his aged veteran, fingering his medals in a nursing home, in Derek Jarman’s dialogue-free War Requiem. That was his final, elegiac appearance on-screen, released in 1989, the year of his death. Despite his patriotic spirit, Olivier wrote that he was disappointed not to play more Nazis. He thought the scar on his top lip rather suited a villain, although it’s barely visible in Marathon Man, in which he shaved his pate to play the war criminal Christian Szell. It’s the infamous dentistry sequence, in which his repeated line “Is it safe?”, so carefully variegated from calm to whispered threat, contrasts with Hoffman’s sweaty, seat-shifting panic, that is best loved, but there’s something essentially Olivier-esque about the scene in which he examines his ill-gotten diamonds. It’s not Szell’s evil that really chills the viewer, but his almost childlike glee, his gasp of surprise and pleasure at once as the gems spill out on the desk and their reflection flashes in his spectacles.

The Entertainer

Inevitably, given his age and venerability, his career and his central role in the founding of the National Theatre, many of Olivier’s later roles, such as his Lord Marchmain in the Brideshead Revisited series, situate him squarely in the heart of the English establishment. Lord Olivier, despite his title, was not quite to the manor born. He was a hard-drinking, frequently foul-mouthed, philandering son of an Anglican minister from a small town in Surrey. Fitting, then, that perhaps his finest screen role was as the beery, lecherous Archie Rice in Tony Richardson’s 1960 film of John Osborne’s The Entertainer—a distant father, ungrateful son, and feckless husband. The part was beneath him socially and professionally, of course: Rice was a working-class trouper, a vaudeville relic, and Olivier was mildly mortified to discover his vowels had become flatter even off-stage during the course of the play’s run at the Royal Court in London. But caked in a painted-on smile and ready to go out there and perform Rice’s creaking routine, he would wisecrack that “this is the real me.” Olivier could spot the truth in a gag better than anyone, and he knew he, like Archie, was a born entertainer, whose spirit soared on the sound of an audience laughing, but who was seeing the theatrical world he once thrived in crumble.

The tragic comedian was the role Olivier was born to play, whether the part was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with method in his madness, or Osborne’s Archie, casting dark thoughts aside with a cheery routine at the end of the pier.

A retrospective of Olivier’s films is available to stream now on the Criterion Channel.