The Guilt, Misery Behind Olivier’s Genius : LAURENCE OLIVIER; A Biography, <i> by Donald Spoto,</i> HarperCollins, $23; 387 pages


Included among the photographs of Laurence Olivier that appear in these pages is this intriguing one: “Aged fourteen, as Katharine in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ ” It might be worth the price of the book just to have a look at that picture.

The grand English actress Sybil Thorndike, whose children went to the same school, saw young Laurence perform as Kate and found him to be “a perfect little bitch.” Olivier would go on to assume 121 stage roles and appear in 58 movies before his death at 82.

But to judge from Donald Spoto’s intelligent, sure-handed biography, Olivier continued to live up to Thorndike’s description, or to the male counterpart--bastard.

Olivier said he was particularly fond of his 1982 performance as King Lear because Lear is “just a selfish, irascible old bastard--so am I. It’s an absolutely straight part for me.”

That Lear, along with Olivier’s Hamlet and his famous wartime performance in the movie “Henry V,” give a permanent record of Olivier’s astonishing ability. Spoto shows that Olivier’s genius arose from a tangled mess of misery, guilt and sexual ambivalence.


After a ponderous opening enumerating Olivier’s Surrey forebears, Spoto’s book picks up speed fast. Having written biographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams, Spoto has plenty of sympathy for the deprived boy who grows up to be a genius.

Olivier’s chilly genteel clerical father, Gerard, never seemed to like his son. Olivier lost his earliest, most attentive audience when his mother, Agnes (“My heaven, my hope, my entire world, my own worshiped Mummy”), died of a brain tumor when he was 12.

He was, in his own words, “a muddled kind of boy, a weakling.” Olivier continued, muddled through boarding school--appeasing bullies and sadistic teachers--and the Central School of Speech and Drama of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his classmates described him as disheveled and threadbare (his father stopped supporting him when he turned 17).

After a short stint with the Birmingham Repertory Company, Olivier got a big break from playwright Noel Coward, who cast him as Victor, the stolid second spouse of the capricious Amanda in “Private Lives.”

Coward, eight years older, fell in love with Olivier, but restricted his involvement to professional encouragement and making up lists of classics for the younger man to read. Along with John Gielgud, Coward comes across as a hero in this book.

Greta Garbo wanted Olivier as her co-star in “Queen Christina,” but after trying out a passionate embrace, she rejected him. Garbo’s chilly refusal came at the same time Olivier’s wife, Jill Esmond, was deciding that she would make her love life exclusively lesbian, almost. Not surprising that around this time Olivier opted for mastery in his professional life.

After seeing a Los Angeles performance of King Lear by a Stratford company, Olivier said, “Listening to the compliments flying, I came to a decision . . . . I was determined to be the greatest actor of all time.”

Olivier met Vivien Leigh, who would become his second wife, at the same time that Jill Esmond announced she was expecting a child.

Olivier’s first son, Tarquin, was born in 1936 when Olivier was 29. That same year he continued his movie career (with “Fire Over England,” an Alexander Korda swashbuckler) and launched an affair with Leigh, his co-star. Seeing Esmond and the baby on weekends and Leigh on weekdays, Olivier went back to the stage to portray Hamlet, Henry V, Macbeth, and Iago to Ralph Richardson’s Othello.

With six Shakespearean roles in 16 months, he was on his way to becoming the most famous actor of his time, if not indisputably the greatest actor of all time. From winter, 1936, to spring, 1938, he learned more than 12,000 lines of Shakespeare, while deciding to leave his wife and marry Vivien Leigh.

Back in Hollywood, Olivier played Heathcliff in William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights.” He was passed over for an Oscar, while Vivien, as Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” won the best actress award. But at the time, Olivier felt superior to movies; he had opined to Wyler, “I suppose this anemic little medium cannot recognize great acting.”

When he and Leigh got together to do “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway, however, it was a flop. They married and returned to wartime England, where Olivier became Sub-Lieutenant Olivier of the Fleet Air Arm.

After destroying two planes by crashing one into another without leaving the ground, he was assigned to repacking parachutes. He decided correctly that he could do more for his country by making a movie of “Henry V.”

At 50, Olivier had the nerve to play Archie Rice, in “The Entertainer.” Of the character, an outdated fraud, Olivier remarked, “It’s what I really am. . . . " Perhaps not a fraud, but certainly muddled. While married to Leigh, Olivier had a 10-year-affair with Danny Kaye, a pairing that may take readers some effort to wrap their minds around.

On a tour to Australia, Olivier fell in love with the handsome young Aussie actor Peter Finch. So did Vivien. While Vivien had an affair with Finch back in England, Olivier had brief interludes with actresses Dorothy Tutin, Claire Bloom and Maxine Audley.

(Truly attentive moviegoers will recognize Audley as the aristocratic dark-haired foil for Marilyn Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl.”)

He then fell in love with Joan Plowright, the sturdy and talented actress who played his daughter in the stage production of “The Entertainer” and would become his third wife.

Feeling guilty about mistreating Leigh and, Spoto surmises, about his bisexuality, Olivier found it better to be on stage than living his real life. “Thank Christ, for the next three hours I’ll be Coriolanus,” Olivier wrote. “Nothing like me, not one of my problems. . . .”

The stage may be an escape, but it’s not a place for cowards. Spoto has great respect for Olivier’s courage in working up to the end of his life--through awful illness, a stormy 10 years as director of the National Theater, and extreme loneliness.

He was separated from Plowright at the end of his life. “Joan expected me to die at 70,” Olivier told friends when he was 77. Even worse than his painful illness were panic attacks that made him forget his lines.

The temperament that made Olivier escape to the stage was tough on wives, lovers, friends and children, but a gift to people who saw him act. Could it be that the perfection of the life doesn’t matter if you get the art right?

Olivier was not much given to theorizing about the art of acting. He liked what Margot Fonteyn said when she was asked to explain what she had communicated in a ballet. She answered: “I explained it while I was doing it.”

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews “To the End of Time” by Richard M. Clurman (Simon & Schuster).