Saturday, July 9, 2011

Laurence Olivier:
Fine Film Actor, So Shut Up!

Many times during Laurence Olivier's film career, I felt for the guy (yeah, that's right, I just called Lord Laurence Olivier "the guy"). Unlike some of my younger readers (surely I must have some) I was actually around to see and anticipate the latest Laurence Olivier movie at the box office. Okay, by the time I was around for Olivier films he was no longer the star but, still, it's no less true. And when I saw those movies, like Marathon Man, The Seven Percent Solution, The Boys from Brazil, Dracula and, later, his earlier achievements leading up to the current stuff, like Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Richard III, The Entertainer, Bunny Lake is Missing and Sleuth, I thought he was a fine actor. In fact, I thought he was excellent. But in interview after interview with some pissy theatre historian, arch film critic or jealous thespian, on tv and in print, I kept hearing (and Olivier surely must have, too) that Olivier was only an okay film actor and, alas, the world would never know his real talents because his great stage work was never preserved. I'd hear the snide little self-satisfied stories about how he had to be taught to act in the movies by William Wyler (like Wyler didn't do that with practically every actor!) as if to say, by telling the story, that we all understood poor, dumb Larry just couldn't cut it in the movies without lots of help. Well, here's the thing:

That's all bullshit!

Laurence Olivier was a damn fine actor, on the stage and on the screen, and I'm sick to death of the persistence of that deranged meme that he was really a stage actor and a great one and, thus, by some odd algebra, not very much of a film actor. Look, anyone who has acted knows that if you're really good on stage, chances are pretty overwhelming that you're going to be good on film. Where in the hell do you think 90 percent of tv and film actors have come from in the history of cinema? They've come from school, college, community and professional theatre. Yes, it can sometimes take a film or two for an actor to get the hang of it but it's not a career long crutch. Just recently, in a piece I wrote at TCM, I mentioned how big Jack Albertson played it in the movie version of The Subject was Roses but made sure to also note he was "a great actor in his own right." I mean, okay, he played it big for the film adaptation of a play he'd just done a few hundred performances of but guess what? He was Jack Albertson so he adjusted to the medium pretty damned quickly and so did Olivier.

And for 847th time, can we all understand that big ISN'T BAD! Big acting by a bad actor is bad. Big acting by a good actor is a gift to the audience. So Olivier played it big sometimes, with big accents and big mannerisms and big inflections. So what?! He was a pleasure to watch every time.

When I watch Sleuth, I don't want to see a subtle, under the radar portrayal of conceited, selfish playwright Andrew Wyke. I want that performance BIG because I need to feel in my bones that this guy is an Asshole with a capital "A". And Olivier delivers.

Or how about Szell from Marathon Man? Does that character (and that line - you know the line) go down as one of the great villains in film history if he's played by a schlep who really doesn't seem to know shit about acting in front of a camera?

How about Hamlet, the film version, not the stage version (obviously)? Ever watch Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh or Richard Burton perform the "to be or not to be" soliloquy? They're all available on YouTube and, actually, they're all pretty good but watch the Olivier version first and then notice all of them going out of their way to NOT do it like Olivier did it! Every choice they make makes Olivier's presence felt by default. They know Olivier's the man to beat here and every one of them is playing to his ghost.

Each movie I've mentioned is a movie in which Laurence Olivier excels. I don't think he was good all the time, hence, certain titles I haven't mentioned. But there are few actors who do nail every performance every time. I don't mean to say he was ever bad, just that some of his performances are much better than others, again, like any actor. But consistently calling him out on his film acting feels a bit like trade jealousy. A way of feeling you've one-upped him, cut him down to size.

But you haven't.

You haven't because Laurence Olivier wasn't just a fine stage actor, he was also a fine film actor. The record of that is preserved for posterity and the evidence is incontrovertible. Eventually, the naysayers will die off but the performances will continue to speak for themselves, loudly and boldly. And the message they speak will be clear: "Laurence Olivier was a damn good actor, regardless of the medium."


This post is a part of the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh Blogathon held by Kendra Bean at the magnificently obsessed Viv and Larry.


Roderick Heath said...

A swell piece, Greg. To be fair, Olivier himself acknowledged Wyler's impact on his sense of how to act for the screen. I've always found some of his early performances a little off, in the likes of Rebecca where you can sense him straining to rein in the temptation to get stagy. And I found him downright bad in That Hamilton Woman, where he plays Nelson as a total himbo. But then he'd pull out one of his marvellous character performances as in The 49th Parallel and The Demi-Paradise and the shock of the breadth of talent overwhelms. To point out that his Hamlet is present by default in other performances can be read two ways, however. Olivier, yes, did present one perfect version of his period's modish concept of Hamlet, but that concept in itself can be and will argued with forever more. His Richard III, on the other hand, has a grotesque vividness that seems sui generies. Anyway, by the time you get to likes of The Boys from Brazil and Sleuth you've got a man who's in such deep control of his craft you don't notice it.

Greg said...

Rod, I love his performance in Richard III and was going to mention it but Hamlet has more easily viewable comparisons.

I don't actually recall That Hamilton Woman well. Either that means I saw it too long ago to remember or never really saw more than snippets. I think it's on Netflix Instant so I'll give it a look soon enough.

And, yes, it's true that Wyler did help him a lot. But I guess I have heard that story enough times, told with a kind of knowing wink as if to say Olivier didn't really know how to act in movies, that I get sick of the condescension behind it.

Kendra said...

Best blog post EVER. I agree with everything you said. His performance in Sleuth is one of my favorites because his mannered performance totally brings out the supreme douchery of the character.

Also, @Roderick, consider the circumstances surrounding That Hamilton Woman. It was made as both a vehicle for Vivien Leigh (hence why her character is a star part and his is more of a supporting part, really) and as pro-British propaganda. He played Nelson one-dimensional and wooden on purpose because that's what British audiences and critics expected of its historical film heroes at the time. His performance has all of the stoic, restrained patriotism considered "quality" by many of the top critics in 1940. Check out the contemporary notices for the film and you'll see he got a lot of praise for his performance (and won the Picturegoer actor of the year award for it. Vivien leigh was runner-up).

Peter Nellhaus said...

On the other hand, I should have avoided The Betsy and the scene where Larry drops his drawers.

And The Jazz Singer? Oy!

For the record, I did like Carrie and Prince and the Showgirl.

injamaven said...

I found LKO's last years of movie performances totally embarrassing. Got so I didn't even seek them out, tho he'd been my hero from Lady Hamilton onward.
He seemed to have nothing left but mannerisms - Marathon Man was the exception.
The fiasco of "INCHON", how sad.
I think he said he couldn't stop acting and needed the money.

Sam Juliano said...

That's all bullshit indeed Greg. Olivier's work for the screen raised the bar, creating a hybrid style that influenced a generation of thespians. Sure, his greatest work on screen has stage origins (his piece de resistence is RICHARD III, 1955) but it was always used to superlative effect in productions that through the craft of the directors -himself included- spun his work into fluid cinematic showcasing. His performance in Wyler's WUTHERING HEIGHTS yielded some of the cinema's greatest melodramatic monologies, that were filmed with great cinematic skill by the directors, who made excellent use of the close up and roving camera
("Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest so long as I live on! I killed you. Haunt me, then! Haunt your murderer! I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul...") His work for Hitchcock on REBECCA may well have been a bit stagey, but it is consistent with the material and temper of the work.
I am a huge fan of his performance in SLEUTH, another interesting hybrid that translates amazingly well to the screen (in the year of Marlon Brando's THE GODFATHER, Olivier copped the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor for that turn) as well as exceptional work in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE ENTERTAINER and THE MARATHON MAN.

Of course no discussion of this icon could be complete without more than a passing mention of his titanic and trademark performances in HENRY V and HAMLET, where he controled and modulated his own work from behind and in front of the camera. Stage work? Not by a long shot. On any list of the greatest screen actors of all-time, I'd say Sir Larry belongs among the top three or four.

Utterly marvelous and vital post!

Greg said...

Kendra, I'm so glad you liked it (you being the expert on such matters). His performance in Sleuth is perfect because it combines stage and screen. The film is clearly play-like in setting (having been based on one) but cinematic in medium. The roles require bigger playing to hold the interest of an audience watching two men in the same setting for two hours and Olivier (and Caine) do it splendidly.

Greg said...

Peter, you should have avoided The Betsy on the grounds of it being utterly inept filmmaking. I hope you learned your lesson.

Greg said...

The fiasco of "INCHON", how sad.
I think he said he couldn't stop acting and needed the money

That may be true. Inchon was a tremendously bad movie but I don't fault Olivier for taking what he could in his waning years, including camera commercials. I just want people to realize, which I'm confident everyone here does, that he was so very good on film as well as stage.

Greg said...

Thank you, Sam! I would say his performance in Sleuth is among his best. First of all, (SPOILER), despite all the best makeup in the world, it's impossible to NOT know that the inspector is Michael Caine, so for those scenes to work you have to rely on Olivier to play it straight, as if he fully believes that it is NOT Michael Caine and he pulls this off exceedingly well.

And, reading those lines from Wuthering Heights again that you quoted I would ask if anyone would think it a good idea to perform those lines using a modern, naturalistic style. You need someone with a stage background to be able to read those kinds of lines properly!

Olivier was one of the best.

Meredith said...

You tell em'! Sometimes bigger really is better. I have yet to watch Dracula but in reading some of the reviews of it it seemed to be a common comment that Olivier was awful. Is that film a similar case of misread performance style? It's how I feel about criticism of Claude Rains in They Won't Forget. His over the top, larger than life southerner brings the courtroom scenes alive for me.

Greg said...

The 1979 Dracula looks gorgeous but is as dull as dirt. And I don't understand the criticisms of Olivier in it. He's the most memorable member of the whole cast.

And I can't imagine criticizing Claude Rains ever. I love Claude Rains! Simply brilliant in every way.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer: Olivier has always been one of my favorites, and I never had the good fortune to see him on stage (unlike just about every other British actor of his generation, who I was lucky enough to see in various plays when living in London in 1977).

All of his Shakespeare that has been preserved on film/video is mesmerizing, but he had tremendous range, and often stole films in minor parts; see his Witte in Nicholas and Alexandra, or Field Marshel French in Oh what A Lovely War!.

I treasure the performances you mention and many others:

Spartacus (That primal scream before slapping Kirk Douglas.)

The Boys From Brazil ("You are not a guard now madam, you are a prisoner. I may leave here empty-handed, but you... are... not... going... anywhere.")

The Devil's Disciple (Especially remarkable considering his private life was going to hell during the latter and he was by his own admission not really "there", but you'd never know it from the performance.)

A Little Romance ("You didn't have to try and win! All you had to do was get out of town!")

I too grew up waiting for the next Olivier film performance, and for over two decades I have been saddened to remember there will be no more new ones. But as you rightly say, what we have, will last.

Oh, and I think Olivier does a great satirical take on Dugout Doug in Inchon-horrible as the movie around him is.

Greg said...

tdraicer: I remember watching the televised stage production of King Lear in the eighties and thinking he was simply amazing. He really did make Shakespeare's words his own.

And I always think it's the mark of a great actor to give a studied, memorable performance in a movie as silly as The Boys from Brazil. A lot of his later work was like that, whether it be this, Dracula or, as you say, Inchon. There wasn't a lot good surrounding him but it didn't mean he wasn't going to be good.

Thanks for bringing up all those other movies, too. A lot of great memories there.

Rachel said...

Great defense of Olivier. I can't help but suspect that a lot of that "he was really a stage actor" stuff comes as a backlash against his decades-long reputation as being the greatest actor of his generation. Both labels, I think, are pretty unfair to him.

And I thought he was just right in Sleuth. For God's sakes, the man lives in a castle surrounded by puppets and games, did you expect a restrained performance? And it's the bigness of his acting that prepares us for all the plot twists headed our way.

My memories of Wuthering Heights have faded, but his performance of Heathcliff's monologue still lingers.

The one I really want to get hold of is Carrie since more than one source has told me it was his best work on film.

Christopher said...

except maybe for Wuthering Heights,I'd never seen an early Olivier film prior to the late 70s.I think that he didn't reach the stardom that eluded him all those years until the 1970s when americans started to see him in the big blockbusters where he was always later on the verge of ending up like Anthony Hopkins is now-Mask of Zorro,Coppola's Dracula,Thor etc..the grizzled veteran expert in all matters heroic or supernatural.One of my fave later films of his ,tho maybe not my favorite role,is 79's- A Little Romance..

bill r. said...

I haven't read all the comments, so forgive me if I'm repeating something (there's 16 of them! Who has that kind of time???) but I don't think the point of those who claim that Olivier was a great stage actor and a mid-level film actor is that you can't be both, but rather that Olivier, specifically, was not. The idea being, whatever brilliance took hold of him while performing on stage did not translate to film, for whatever reason.

Anyway, it's impossible for me to know if that's the case, and I agree with you, it's a smug proposition. I saw it, you didn't and never will, poor you. But I do think he was a fine film actor and have never understood the drubbing he sometimes gets. Your point about "taking him down a peg" is probably right.

Greg said...

For God's sakes, the man lives in a castle surrounded by puppets and games, did you expect a restrained performance?

Ha! Rachel, that's so true. I mean, from the start of the movie everything about his character is completely theatrical because he's spent a life in the theatre, marrying actresses, collecting props and dioramas and awards and convincing himself that Andrew Wyke is the greatest piece of theatre there is!

To my mind, only Olivier could have played it.

Greg said...

except maybe for Wuthering Heights,I'd never seen an early Olivier film prior to the late 70s

Same here. Like I said in the piece, I saw all his current films (meaning seventies) and only later, with cable and videotapes, was I able to see the earlier ones. When I did, they didn't disappoint.

Greg said...

Bill, thanks for repeating everything everyone said. Nice job not reading the comments.

Actually, that's not true but it was too easy a setup and, like Arbogast, I go for the easy setups.

The idea being, whatever brilliance took hold of him while performing on stage did not translate to film, for whatever reason.

I do agree with that and was hoping to get that across in the piece, that his brilliance on stage didn't translate to film. At least that's the theory. I suppose my thoughts here are that it comes off as dismissive of his film work which, even if it wasn't as brilliant as his stage work, was still pretty damn good.

I do know from seeing plenty of theatre in person and seeing plenty of filmed theatre on tape, dvd or cable that there definitely is an electricity one feels in the theatre from the live performance that is almost completely lost when seen once removed by a camera. I saw Brighton Beach Memoirs during its DC tour back in the eighties and loved it (that's right, I loved a Neil Simon play - because I saw it in the theatre). When the movie came out I saw it (same script, same everything) and, man, it just didn't work.

Same with 1776. Again, saw it in DC on a tour in the eighties and it was magnificent! Seriously, on stage, when they get ready to sign the Declaration, it's palpable. You can feel it in the theatre. But the movie version? Never got the same feeling, ever.

And that's what I'm sure they're talking about with Olivier. They're talking about an electrifying force that they didn't see on film but turned that around into dismissing what he did on film instead of treating them as apples and oranges.

Anyway, I'm glad to see from this discussion that there's more appreciation for Olivier on film than I previously thought.

Judy said...

Olivier has always been one of my favourite film actors, and I would love to have seen him on stage - I remember my grandmother used to tell me about seeing both him and Gielgud in 'Romeo and Juliet' as young men, and I really envied her that.

But, although stage work has that extra electricity you describe in your last comment, I do think he brought a great intensity to his film roles - and TV as well, with roles like his 'Lear' and the dying Lord Marchmain in 'Brideshead Revisited'. I also still remember seeing him with Joanne Woodward in a TV production of 'Come Back, Little Sheba' in 1977, where I remember him using large hand gestures in a contrast with her performance which was poignant and seemed on a smaller scale - would love to see it again. Anyway, I do agree with you that he was a great film and TV actor, even if he was greater yet on the stage. I enjoyed reading this, Greg, and thanks to Sam for pointing it out to me!

Kendra said...

@rachel--You can find a cheap copy of Carrie on Amazon or probably at any DVD store. I'd highly recommend watching it. It really is one of his best performances, and it's a film that is largely and sadly overlooked when people talk about Olivier.

Anonymous said...


One more thing I wanted to mention.

In Sleuth, if you watch closely, you can see where Olivier badly cut his hand sweeping some glass off a table. With only the slightest wince he continues with the scene, doing the take so well it is the one in the movie. That's a professional.

(He was also shot in the leg with an arrow in Richard III, but I don't know if that actually ended up in the film.)

Casee Marie said...

This was a very interesting read, so well thought-out and masterfully written. I've yet to see Sleuth, clearly an oversight on my part and something I'll definitely be looking into. But having seen That Hamilton Woman, Fire Over England and Rebecca (which I thought he did a nice job in, just the same) I feel like I've seen what a lot of people would consider as some of his low points on the screen? Still, I never thought he lost his depth and I always enjoyed watching him. A fine actor indeed! Great post.

Greg said...

I remember my grandmother used to tell me about seeing both him and Gielgud in 'Romeo and Juliet' as young men, and I really envied her that.

Wow, me too! What an amazing thing to be able to tell your grandchildren that you actually saw Olivier and Gielgud on stage together performing Shakespeare.

I love Brideshead Revisited through and through. Olivier was, as always, great.

And thanks for the kind words, Judy.

Greg said...

tdraicer, I never noticed that! I'm looking for that next time it's on.

Greg said...

Casee Marie, thanks so much! I think he's excellent in all of those you mention and have always loved him in both Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. Olivier's delivery and vocal power made him the perfect actor for gothic romances like those.

Brian Doan said...

I actually love him in REBECCA, too-- to riff from the other end of Rachel's comment about the theatricality of his SLEUTH character, in REBECCA Maxim is *supposed* to be withdrawn, slightly awkward, cold-- any "adjustment" Olivier was still undergoing from stage to screen (if indeed he was) fits beautifully with the part's need for emotional reticence and occasional mood swings. Also, his work brings out the only performance of Joan Fontaine's I've ever liked; I know Hitchcock and Selznick had something to do with that, too, but Olivier modulates beautifully to fit his performance with hers, to the enhancement of both (man, that monologue in the climax about Rebecca's death is just so beautifully done). I'll admit I don't love MARATHON MAN (I always feel like it's trying too hard), but Olivier is very good in it. I still need to see WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And yes, SLEUTH is wonderful-- I remember renting it as a teen and watching it three times in two days. Just out of curiosity (and thinking about what you said about HAMLET), have you seen Branagh's remake? I haven't, but wonder if a comparison would also tell us something about what Olivier brought to the original.

PS-- I assume you also know that Olivier's character was based in part on games-obsessed Stephen Sondheim? In fact, the working title of the play was WHO'S AFRAID OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM?

Greg said...

[drinking water as he reads Brian Doan's comment. Still reading]

I still need to see WUTHERING HEIGHTS

[sprays water from mouth all over computer screen, composes self, begins typing]

So, Brian, what you say about... um... so, that thing about Olivier's performance in...


Okay, sorry, that just kind of took me by surprise. It's not like it's a Sight and Sound perennial or people consistently rank it at the top of Greatest of All Time polls but, still, it's pretty damn famous. And, I think, pretty damn good. As is Olivier.

And, no, I didn't know that was the original title of Sleuth. Cool.