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I Act, Therefore I Am | The Nation

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I Act, Therefore I Am

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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.

About the Author

David Thomson
David Thomson is the author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and...

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Osborne at the Royal Court had meant Look Back in Anger in 1956. In fact, Olivier--a risk-taker but a settled Tory in matters of stage taste--had not thought much of it. It was Arthur Miller's response that alerted him to something new, and Olivier could smell a threat to his supremacy like a cat sniffing cod. And so Osborne, in effect, had met challenge with challenge: See if the great man of the English stage can play a sleazy music-hall opportunist.

The Royal Court was a small theater, and from the moment Olivier came on it was clear that an insidiously intimate transformation was in the making. Somehow or other--from observing real figures in the dying art of music hall, from his friendship with comedian Danny Kaye or from his sinister self--Olivier had created in Archie Rice a Falstaff in whom dead patter and sly innuendo had smothered heart. The man was craven, wretched, in decay: England in the sour mood of Suez. Olivier made him mesmerizing. The hatefulness was seductive. The tangle in the actor's urge to be loved and loathed at the same time was as naked and noxious as his own body undergoing autopsy. All of a sudden, Sir Laurence had become like Brando or Dean. He was our rat, as well as our king.

It's not clear how many of Olivier's acts Coleman managed to catch. He doesn't make his own role as spectator vivid in this book. He recites the most important reviews, a method that runs a risk of letting the challenging works seem automatic, or just one thing after another. But then he gives us Vivien Leigh at the rehearsal for The Entertainer--the most understanding yet the most violently distressed spectator Olivier ever had--and he has her crying, as if the rat was meant to frighten her above all. And perhaps it was. I still recall the foul intimacy with which Archie chatted to the audience in The Entertainer--yes, it's in the play, or at least it was once Olivier found it as the perfect, dreadful voice, that of self-pity used to prod at our hidden wounds.

There are moments in an actor's history when he establishes a bond with his audience that is like infection. And Olivier did it with Archie Rice. It was a role that came at the hinge of his life, when "Sir" was on his way to becoming "Lord"; when Vivien Leigh was about to be replaced by Joan Plowright; and as his command of the British imagination took on the National Theatre. In a matter of months, Olivier adopted a play, a playwright and political ideas he had not esteemed before, and pierced the English imagination. I can still hear his poisoned sigh--"I do my best, don't I?"--full of the dread that the best onstage was just a cheap trick. Olivier taught generations what acting could be--and he left us uneasy. Coleman's coolness and detachment establish that uneasiness without crushing the man. Olivier was so anxious to act that he could live in tatters--incomplete, inconsistent, as fickle as the wind, perpetually exhausted and self-dramatizingly evasive for anyone capable of love or loyalty. But given the right role--Henry V onscreen, or head of the National Theatre in life--he could alter the cultural compass of a nation.

Olivier was the son of a clergyman, born just south of London in Dorking, in 1907. The family life was not happy, and though Larry often liked to be the English gent, he was the sort of cleric's son who might end up in the divorce courts and worse. He had a lovely singing voice; he was kept from real beauty as a child only by the brutal ambition of his face; and he excelled in girls' roles in school. He had a great year at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He became lean, gaunt and utterly handsome, often with a Ronald Colman mustache. In 1930 Noël Coward gave him a breakthrough role, personal friendship and maybe more in Private Lives, and by 1931 Olivier was performing that hit play in New York and very alert to Hollywood offers.

Coleman stresses that at this point in his life, Olivier had done precious little of Shakespeare or the classics. He was a modern actor, plainly aiming at the movies. He was also married to a young actress, Jill Esmond, who would turn out to have stronger lesbian tendencies. Coleman is pretty sure that Olivier himself had had a couple of homosexual affairs, though he has reason to argue that they were climatic or fashionable more than heartfelt. Still, in 1933 Olivier did a play called The Green Bay Tree in New York, under the famously cruel direction of Jed Harris. Coleman sees it as an important failure for Olivier, coupled with Garbo's inability to feel aroused by Olivier onscreen. But he might have gone further with The Green Bay Tree. A long interview exists, with Dick Cavett talking to the elderly but precise Harris, in which the director relived the climax of that play--about a young man kept as a gay lover and too weak to establish a heterosexual life--and made it pretty clear that he reckoned he was eating into Olivier's rather feeble, vain soul. (No wonder, decades later, that Olivier modeled his Richard III on Harris.)

What happened next is crucial. A young husband and father, but unhappy in both parts, Olivier went back to England and after a time of dismay and muddle accepted the invitation of John Gielgud to do Romeo and Juliet, with the two of them swapping the roles of Romeo and Mercutio (Peggy Ashcroft was Juliet). This is the point to draw attention to an astonishing generation of English actors, a phenomenon that Coleman might have explored more fully. Olivier and Ashcroft were born in 1907, Gielgud in 1904, Ralph Richardson in 1902, Michael Redgrave in 1908, Alec Guinness in 1914. Is that chance, or was there something in the social collapse after 1918 that left holes for a new acting style to emerge? It's an important background, just as the group fed on their friendships and rivalries. Coleman is excellent at describing the chummy unease and the loving reserve that existed among Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson.

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