I Act, Therefore I Am
She was ruined as a person and an actress by the late 1950s--her later films are not very good. And Olivier? Well, the remarkable thing about his titanic life is that in some ways the most important things were waiting for age and the gradual shift from greed to sadness. He went for a divorce. He married Joan Plowright (born in 1929). He had a second generation of children. And he had Archie Rice, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, his Othello of the 1960s (he had killed the suggestion of getting Paul Robeson--"One rather wants to have a bash oneself"--and so he put on make-up, black, brown and blue, for two and a half hours), Edgar in Strindberg's Dance of Death, Shylock, James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night and even a Lear on television still to come (with his ex-mistress Dorothy Tutin as Goneril). And as if requiring a fresh danger, Olivier--late in life--created a new threat: stage fright. There had to be dread for the exhilaration to thrive. He made awful movies, too, for big money, in order to pay for his brood. But he now regarded his stage self as the true gold that should not be sullied.
And he turned the idea of the National Theatre from a forlorn and forgettable foundation stone into something that may still inspire readers of these pages to visit England regularly. Coleman is at his best on the National Theatre years, and he may be happier dealing with practical business than with performance. But he reveals Olivier the manager as well as the inspiration. And despite the steady inroads of fatigue and illness, Olivier played that political game to the hilt. Most intriguing is his relationship with Kenneth Tynan, the bold critic who became the National's literary manager. Of course, that was hiring your most likely scourge--and Tynan had been especially rough on Vivien Leigh. But Coleman denies a gay bond between the two men. I share that feeling, which is not the same as saying that in all their years together at the National there was not a steady pressure of flirt, attraction and amatory maneuver.
Tynan was not gay. His diaries would hardly have omitted owning up to any item of gossip. But the discerning Gore Vidal once observed that Ken was a bit of a lesbian. In turn, Tynan's diaries contain this:
Larry adopts a passive-feminine persona when in the presence of authority, i.e. he anticipates the castration by taking on the manner of a woman--mother.
I recall what Gadge Kazan once said to me: "Above everything else, Larry is a coquette."
Tynan made trouble at the National yet seldom lost Olivier's loyalty. The dramaturge believed the theater should do Rolf Hochhuth's play Soldiers, which attacked Churchill and British bombing policy during the war. Tynan knew how that would enrage Lord Chandos, chairman of the board and a member of Churchill's war cabinet. And Olivier backed Tynan if only in opposing the government's power over play texts at that time. The Hochhuth play is not very good--but why should a national theater be free from such provocative mistakes? Why was Churchill above reproach? The debate was full of anguish and intrigue, and there's no need to credit Olivier's claims that he was not suited to such moods, or good at them. He was a matchless rival, a killer enemy, a winner at nearly anything he took on. And it is to his great credit that the National Theatre came into being. Yes, he loathed and saw the rat in his successor, Peter Hall--but it takes one to know one. There was a succession. There would be others. And the National Theatre still stands, not just a haven for classics and new plays but the arena where such actors as Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Ian Holm and Anthony Hopkins have worked. That generation and others still to come should know that Olivier endured hells to make that place safe.
But "safe" is not the right word. Terry Coleman seems not to have fallen in love with his subject. That's fair enough: Olivier lovers often came away hurt, and in his two books--Confessions of an Actor and On Acting--there is enough self-love to cover the terrain. He could call chauffeurs and house maids "darling." I daresay that in the world of the theater, bisexual affection can pass without all the necessary touchings--in short, Olivier used his appeal to men and women alike all his years. It's clear that he could behave like a shit. Nor would he have disputed that charge. On the other hand, he had made a bargain with his world--that the one sin could be traded in if you acted like a prince. And more and more, we behold our world not as one subject to trust or confidence but as a seething playscape where placing your faith is like laying a bet. In that game, Olivier was the essential actor of the twentieth century, the one who proposed pretending as a basic form of existence.