Sixteen years after Laurence Olivier’s death, here is the official biography, initiated by his widow, Joan Plowright, supported by his children and by a writer with access to a mass of private correspondence. Already reviewed in London, Olivier has come in for some heavy attacks, notably from Anthony Holden, the author of an unofficial Olivier biography and a writer well versed in show business material. Terry Coleman is not experienced with theatrical subjects. His best-known books concern forms of transportation and the life and legend of Horatio Nelson (a role played by Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, his happiest work with Vivien Leigh, and a crowd-pleaser in time of war).
It is part of the general complaint that Coleman has not evoked the sense of danger in so many Olivier performances. (Time and again, the actor chose leaps and falls that seemed perilous.) Holden also claims that Coleman has obdurately refused to credit widespread stories about Olivier’s bisexuality, notably his connection with Danny Kaye. Finally, some say, Olivier was much more of a scoundrel than his official biographer is willing to acknowledge.
Don’t be too alarmed in advance. The marauding nature of Olivier’s private life is clear–indeed, it’s hard to think of a book that so carefully traces the need for topped-up sexual reassurance in a lifetime of acting. That alone is enough to persuade us of the truth of Alec Guinness’s barbed funeral tribute–“Larry always carried the threat of danger with him; primarily as an actor but also, for all his charm, as a private man. There were times when it was wise to be wary of him.” You may deduce from that observation how much easier it was for strangers to worship Olivier than for those who worked with him. George Devine, for years leader of the Royal Court Theatre and the man who had launched Joan Plowright’s career, told the young actress as she fell in love with the master, “Marry him if you must, but don’t act with him too often, or he will destroy you.”
No one knew that remorseless competitiveness better than Vivien Leigh. It is the orthodoxy these days that she is the dictionary’s illustration next to “self-destruction”–tubercular, alcoholic, manic-depressive, nymphomaniacal, desperately spoiled. Not to mention beautiful, enchanting and very funny at the drop of her own knickers. (Shortly after getting to America, the dulcet snob declared, “I do not think there is anything nice about America except the football and the politeness of men in garages.” It’s Blanche DuBois ahead of her time.) Leigh was also unlucky in that she drove Olivier mad with lust (she was always “Pussey” to him) and at times outstripped him in show business success. His creeping revenge may be the worst evidence against him as a person.
Yet Coleman is smart enough to give us Olivier’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer as seen through the hurt gaze of Vivien. The play’s author, John Osborne, saw this:
One Saturday run-through…he [Olivier] sprang his first realised version of the scene in which Archie sings the blues and crumples slowly down the side of the proscenium arch. The spring sunshine and the noise of the Sloane Square traffic poured through the open door. A dozen of us watched, astounded. Vivien turned her head towards me. She was weeping. I immediately thought of the chill inflection in Olivier’s Archie voice, “I wish women wouldn’t cry. I wish they wouldn’t.”
Most English people who were alive in Olivier’s time have their Olivier stories and their moments. As an admiring teenager I had seen him do what seemed grand things in the traditional vein–his films of Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, all playing to more people than had ever seen the plays. I had seen the lurid Peter Brook Titus Andronicus onstage and been too young to distinguish Hammer horror from genuine tragedy. But The Entertainer was something else. I’m not sure now whether it’s a good play, but Osborne–a talented but malicious man, and not unlike Olivier–had been intrigued and stung by Olivier’s casual (if not reckless) wondering whether Osborne could write anything for him.