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.”
“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.’ ”
Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, Spite Marriage
Despite the studio system’s stifling conditions, Buster Keaton’s follow-up to The Cameraman remains a testament to the funnyman’s singular style.
The Same Old Song: A Guide to Neonoir
Since its classic-Hollywood heyday, noir has remained a vibrant mode in both studio and independent filmmaking, taking on nostalgic resonances in the highly referential work of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, and the Coen brothers.
Carole Lombard’s Divine Lunacy
A raucous, fast-talking diva, the actor had a remarkable ability to convey both glamour and silliness, a gift that made her the queen of screwball comedy before her untimely death in 1942.
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