I Act, Therefore I Am

I Act, Therefore I Am

Admired from a distance and reviled up close, Laurence Olivier could establish a relation with his audience that was like an infection. His official biography chronicles a personal life of an actor who altered the cultural compass of a nation.


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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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