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Laurence Olivier: The Tragic Comedian

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.”

“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.’ ”

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