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I Act, Therefore I Am | The Nation

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I Act, Therefore I Am

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But Gielgud had redirected the animal accuracy and daring of Olivier, even as he rather envied it. Gielgud saw earlier than most that in their contest he was the great fluting voice, essentially old-fashioned, while Olivier was a physical confrontation. By 1937 Olivier was doing Hamlet, Henry V and Twelfth Night (Sir Toby Belch) at the Old Vic--and by 1937 he was wildly in love with the 24-year-old Vivien Leigh.

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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For more than twenty years every loving couple in Britain thought of Larry and Viv as examples, and knew nothing of how perfect romance was tearing the two of them to pieces. Coleman gives a fair and deeply painful portrait of the marriage, and by implication he suggests the rather hysterical romantic energy with which Olivier embarked on the affair, as if to settle in his own mind the kind of man he was. Coleman has had access to the love letters, and they are of the kind that could make anyone suspicious of love. They also suggest a couple most in love when separated.

Everything seemed to go swimmingly. No matter that they both gave up spouse and child to be together. They were on screen in Fire Over England; she was Ophelia to his Hamlet, playing at Elsinore itself. Then Hollywood swept them up at almost the same time. Olivier had gone there to play Heathcliff in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (produced by Sam Goldwyn), and Leigh came along soon after--to be with him, for sure, but also with a plan to get the great role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. Even there, I suspect, there was more competitiveness than Coleman allows. The people who knew Leigh and Olivier then in America were all certain he was taken aback and piqued when Scarlett's glory left Heathcliff out on the moors.

Olivier was not just the older and the more experienced. He was far more of an actor. To the end of her days Leigh had a narrow range, while Olivier knew no challenge beyond him. In this period, for instance, he had also been Iago to Richardson's Othello (startling Ralph with a full-mouthed kiss), he would be Sergius in Arms and the Man, Richard III and then, in 1946, either side of the interval, Oedipus and Mr. Puff in The Critic. Versatility was his forte, his being nearly; he had built up the theory that with the right nose (false), the proper walk and costume, he could work his way from the outside in with any part. In just a few years' time, this would stand as a vital contrast to American method acting, which was to find inner resemblance and work outward. (One consequence of this is the famous clash with Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, where Olivier--pretending to be a Nazi dentist--grew weary of Hoffman's labored reachings for someone very like Hoffman himself and urged, "Try acting!")

Leigh was always Vivien. Her prettiness was sacred to her, and she could hardly do without her Belgravia accent. But sometimes she moved people to the depth of their being--twice with Southern belles Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois. Coleman does not take sides, and he quotes many people--notably Noël Coward ("If he can succeed in breaking away, good luck to him")--to the effect that Larry and Vivien were killing each other, first with love and then with bitterness. She got the first Oscar. Her stardom eclipsed his. And he did not like the adjustment. There were later times--notably in Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth (in the 1950s)--when he acted her off the stage and seemed driven by that intent. She fell ill. She went mad--with such heartfelt players it is tormentingly hard to judge where that act becomes a matter of clinical danger. In doing A Streetcar Named Desire, she may have been taken over by her deranged character. But the irony of that was terrible. For Olivier's whole devotion to acting was to claim or hope for such abandonment, no matter that he was too selfish and calculating ever to lose touch with Larry. But he probably hated his own doggedness.

In searching out people who knew the couple, Coleman has found Peter Hiley (a kind of manager), who makes this penetrating suggestion:

As a man [Larry] was very light. Vivien was not light in that way at all. From one room to another he could switch his temperament. This is one of the actor's great talents. He treated serious things very lightly.... He was not a deep man. Vivien was a very strong woman, very intelligent, very streetwise, very generous. Larry was not really interested in people.... He would observe someone, thinking that would make a good something for Shylock, but he was picking up mannerisms.

Their years of hell have been done before (expect a musical soon--it's a Sondheim subject--Curtains?), but Coleman never flinches from his terrible duty. They were both by then such expert scene-makers as to know just how to wound each other. She was tireless until she collapsed, insisting on relentless all-night parties at which guests were virtual prisoners; and he--it is plain--had a stamina for work and staying up late that matched hers. She fucked Peter Finch and had breakdowns. He slept around but never turned a hair. He got his Oscar (for Hamlet), his knighthood and even a cigarette named after him (with royalties too).

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