Joan Plowright’s Prolific Screen Life : Movies: Laurence Olivier’s widow’s recent roles range from a crusty Victorian in ‘Enchanted April’ to Mrs. Wilson in ‘Dennis the Menace.’


Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier met in the cast of “The Entertainer” at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1956. They re-created their roles in the film version released in 1960. (Far from Shakespeare, it may nevertheless be Olivier’s finest screen performance.) They were married in Connecticut in 1961, while starring on Broadway, he in “Becket” and she in “A Taste of Honey,” for which she won a Tony.

Since the death in 1989 of Lord Olivier of Brighton, Plowright--Lady Olivier, as she is for her lifetime--has returned full force to her own acting career, including her fine, characterful performance as Mrs. Fisher, the crusty Victorian widow who mellows in the benign Italian air in “Enchanted April.”

She has lately concluded four months on location in Chicago, playing Mrs. Wilson in “Dennis the Menace,” with Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson, the neighbor most menaced by Dennis.


“Walter,” Plowright said the other day at lunch in Los Angeles, “walked into the room where we were all meeting for the first time: the producer, the director John Hughes, all of us. We’d not met before, any of us. It was that first, polite meeting between people who are going to work together. Walter walked over to me and plunked a kiss on my cheek, sat down--still perfect silence and nice smiles--then said across the table, ‘My wife is very worried in case we get up to anything sexual.’ That was his opening line. Delightful man.”

The Wilsons’ characters have been fleshed out, “to find out why they don’t have children of their own, because she obviously adores them. She’s a very attractive character to play.”

Rather different, you might well say, from Mrs. Fisher, with her lorgnette, her imperious airs and her captivity in the past.

The notion of a film of “Enchanted April” had occurred to Plowright and her country neighbor, Maggie Smith, 15 years ago. “We often spend Sundays together, exchanging books we’ve read. I remember Maggie coming with ‘Enchanted April’ and another book of Elizabeth von Arnim’s, ‘Vera.’ ”

The two actresses thought then of playing Lottie and Rose (Josie Lawrence and Miranda Richardson in the film), if anyone could be found to do a screen adaptation. “But we hadn’t decided who for what. But even then I was thinking vaguely about Mrs. Fisher. I like inventing characters, and she was very ripe for invention.”

When others hands took up the project and came back with a screenplay, Plowright says, “it was Mrs. Fisher time.”


The little castle, the Castello, where the film was shot was the actual place where Von Arnim had spent a month with three women friends in 1919 or 1920, the gathering that inspired the novel. The place had gone to seed in recent years, but the BBC art department went in a couple of months before shooting and planted flowers, vines and shrubs to complement what was still growing wild.

The castle could be reached only by a long flight of steps from the harbor below. “Think of getting the equipment up there. It was like moving an army, those operations, really a battle operation. But nobody complained . . . or not a lot.” After night shooting sessions, no one felt like negotiating the steps in the dark, so the actresses slept on mattresses in one of the empty rooms.

The director, Mike Newell, wanted Plowright to be even more the dragon lady at the start--”so the other women could think, ‘Oh, we’ve made a mistake.’ More Lady Bracknell (from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”). But you’ve got to present somebody who has the capability of changing.”

Plowright discovered that the “real” Mrs. Fisher had sketched, to pass the time while sitting in attendance on Queen Victoria. “Reading her diaries let me say to the scriptwriter Peter Barnes and Mike that there’s nothing in the script, other than her saying her thoughts, to reveal that she suddenly feels she wants the living and not the dead. ‘Can we use the fact that she starts sketching things again?’ ” And that does become the clue to Mrs. Fisher’s renascence.

What seems remarkable about the film, and what has probably contributed to its popularity, is that the four well-observed woman are presented with great but unstressed economy.

Of Mrs. Fisher, Plowright says, her hauteurs “are a total defense of her disappointment about her life since her golden childhood. She says the childhood still exists in this room with all the photographs, and anyone who tries to break down the barrier will be met with this steely, formidable defense.” The film’s attractive optimism suggests in Mrs. Fisher’s case, Plowright says, that there remains a spark, “something, as there surely is in everyone, which, given a little push and a little bit of courage, can extend a life and a personality.”


Not long after Olivier’s death, a producer proposed that Plowright star in a revival of a J. B. Priestley play called “Time and the Conways,” one of several dramas inspired by the theories of John William Dunne about time, mathematics and immortality. The project gave Plowright a chance to work with members of her family.

The production was directed by son Richard Olivier, who graduated from UCLA (to avoid the pressures of being Laurence Olivier’s son at an English university) and then apprenticed as a director at the Northampton Theatre Company.

“Mrs. Conway has six children, and two of the girls were played by our daughters Tamsin, who’s 28 now, and Julie, who’s 24. I wanted to be with them all to see that they were acting reasonably to losing their father, so that we could all be there to talk about it if we needed to.”

The production had its amusing moments. “I remember Richard coming to me and saying, ‘Would you ask the girls to treat me as a director and not as a brother at rehearsal?’ The possibility of family tensions arising if you’re all there together does exist. You get them out of the way at the beginning, or at least recognize that they’ll be there, and talk about them.”

A production of “M. Butterfly” that Richard directed is about to finish its preview runs out of town and open in London. He also has a contract to direct a play, and perhaps several, at an English-language theater in Vienna.

He and Plowright and another director have formed a production company to develop projects for films and television. “That will be moving us on a bit,” Plowright says. “But I may have to bend my life around ‘Dennis the Menace II.’ It went so well that at the farewells they were saying, ‘See you at the sequel!’ ”


“Dennis I” will likely open next summer with Christopher Lloyd, the mad scientist from the “Back to the Future” series, playing Switchblade Sam, a menace for Dennis.

(“A wonderful actor, very serious,” Plowright says. “He’s still shooting until Christmas. But then he’s to do ‘Macbeth’ somewhere. I’d very much like to see it.”)

Plowright also made the pilot for what was to be a television version of “Driving Miss Daisy,” with Robert Guillaume as the driver. The pilot aired, but opposition to the characterization of the black driver--such opposition never materialized during the film version--and the fact that the pilot got low ratings evidently prevented the show going to series.

She has been in Los Angeles most recently to do a guest-star role in the next Arnold Schwarzenegger film, “The Last Action Hero.” “That makes people smile,” she says. “Great fun it’ll be.”

“It must be nice for you to be so busy,” a friend suggested during her visit.

“Yes, it’s come like a snowball,” Joan Plowright replied, “and it’s come at just the right time.”