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Laurence Olivier: He Made His Point : The great actor mastered stage challenges in a lifetime of achievement

He had two ambitions: To become a great actor and to make people aware of acting. He succeeded on both counts.

Laurence Olivier. Even as a young actor, the name had a ring to it. Indeed, his friend Ralph Richardson once suggested that the name had made the career. Had he been born Larry Oliver, he might have ended up a tatty seaside comic, like Archie Rice in “The Entertainer.”

But Laurence Olivier ended up the actor of the century. With only 11 years to go in the century, this is a safe statement. There isn’t time for anyone else to catch up with him.

Note that we are talking about Olivier the actor. Not Olivier the film maker--the man who found a way to put Shakespeare on the screen. Not Olivier the founding father of the National Theater of Great Britain. Those were separate achievements.

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Acting was what he really did. He tackled all the big parts--Hamlet, Oedipus, Lear--and as many of the little parts as he could slip in. The most audacious example of his range was his 1946 Old Vic double-bill of “Oedipus Rex” and Sheridan’s “The Critic.”

From the blind king to the tittering Mr. Puff with barely time for a wash. That, for Olivier, was acting: a feat like a great sports performance. No wonder he lost his temper with Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Acting wasn’t about having the vapors.

It was about impersonation--the art of slipping on someone else’s identity like a coat. His rival, John Gielgud, could note with equanimity that “I am always the same.” For Olivier the point was to be always different: To create a new character each time out, as a novelist would do.

One had to find common ground with the character, of course. (He experienced Iago’s jealousy after being passed over for promotion when he was flying for the RAF during World War II.) But essentially you were painting a portrait of somebody else, with special attention to the way he looked. Olivier couldn’t relax with a character until he had figured out how he parted his hair and whether he wore a monocle.

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Theater being “a bloody lie from beginning to end” (as he once told a press conference), it was crucial to get the disguise right. Olivier would spend months building up his physique for a toga part, or refining a regional accent for a vernacular one.

For “Othello,” he lowered his voice to a baritone and dyed every inch of his body, including the inside of his mouth. For “The Merchant of Venice,” he rigged up a dental prosthesis that director Jonathan Miller had to jeer him out of using. One of his biggest regrets was that he never got to play Nathan Detroit in the National’s revival of “Guys and Dolls.” He had worked up such a lovely Brooklyn accent.

A late biographer, Anthony Holden, said that all this emphasis on externals proved that Olivier felt himself to be a hollow man. If so, it was all the better for his part. He filled himself with the part, which he presented with supreme technique and, always, a hint of danger.

This was one artist who adored going out on a limb on principle. He did so literally while filming “Henry V” in Ireland. Simply drop onto the horseman from the tree, like this, he instructed his stuntmen--breaking his ankle as he fell. He was always breaking something as he devised this or that spectacular leap or topple.

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An external actor, then? That was the accusation. With Olivier, his critics said, “you could always see the wheels going around.” That was fine for “Richard III,” but not so good for contemporary roles. It was why he never became a real movie star, like Spencer Tracy.

In fact, Olivier did have a couple of years as a movie star in the late ‘30s--his “Wuthering Heights.” It was hard to reconcile this darkly beautiful young man with the twit who had briefly surfaced at RKO 10 years before. Olivier had invented himself into a major screen personality and might have remained one if he hadn’t had the good luck to return to Britain during the war.

Instead, he became a great stage actor--one who wanted the audience to see the wheels go around. Theater was illusion in the service of truth; Olivier wanted to keep them in interplay, so that the audience had a double image of the man in the story and the man telling the story--i.e., the actor. Oedipus might be howling like a weasel caught in a trap (that was the image that Olivier had selected), while the actor was giving the performance of his life.

To be and not to be: That was the magic of great acting, and you could let the audience in on it without destroying the fiction.

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Sometimes, of course, the fiction did get destroyed when Olivier was so bad it was almost funny. This was particularly true when he tried an American role--Doc in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He attacked when he should have infiltrated, and he usually attacked from the wrong direction.

Yet it could be wonderful to see Olivier go over the top. Playing Tattle in “Love for Love” at Expo ’67 in Montreal, he flirted with the audience--there is no other way to put it. Not as grossly as a Mickey Rooney would have done. His winks and hanky-flutterings were within the context of Restoration comedy. But creating a character was not what it was about. This was Olivier the shameless scene stealer.

The next night he played the Captain in Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death.” Again it was a showy performance. But this time characterization was the point. He wanted to show us the depth of his character’s self-hate. At one point, Olivier picked up a black cat and ran off the stage, and you could feel the hairs on your arm prickle, as if an electric current had passed through the theater.

Years later, a member of the company told me that I had imagined the black cat. Perhaps so. I didn’t imagine the shock.

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Olivier’s last stage performance was in Trevor Griffiths’ “The Party” at the Old Vic in 1974. This disproved the charge that he couldn’t play a drab character. He didn’t make an entrance. We were just gradually aware that he had come on.

He played a union organizer from Glasgow. His big scene was a 20-minute catechism lesson on Marxist economics, delivered from a chair. Between the lines Olivier told us what it felt like to be on the edge of retirement, not sure that the young people sitting at your feet understood what you were talking about, but as convinced of the truth of your message as you had been in your youth.

Olivier had given his own message in his maiden speech in the House of Lords years before: “Theater is the initial glamorizer of thought.” He made his point every time he stepped on a stage.


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