Ziegler, Philip. “Olivier, MacLehose Press. 2014.
The Man and the Star
Philip Ziegler’s “Olivier” is an incredibly accessible and comprehensive portrait of this Hollywood superstar, Oscar-winning director, and the man who is considered to be the greatest stage actor of the twentieth century. The era of Olivier was filled with great actors— Gielgud, Richardson, Guinness, Redgrave, Scofield, Burton, O’Toole–but none could challenge Laurence Olivier’s range and power. By the 1940s he had achieved international stardom. His affair with Vivien Leigh led to a marriage as glamorous and as tragic as any in Hollywood history. He was as accomplished a director as he was a leading man: his three Shakespearian adaptations are among the most memorable ever filmed.
What is so interesting about Olivier is that at the height of his fame, he took an administrator’s salary in order to become the founding Director of the National Theatre. In 2013 the theatre celebrates its fiftieth anniversary and had it not been for Olivier’s leadership it would never have achieved the status that it enjoys today. Off-stage, Olivier was the most extravagant of characters. He was generous, yet almost insanely jealous of those few contemporaries whom he deemed to be his rivals. He was charming but with a ferocious temper.
Author Ziegler had access to more than fifty hours of candid, unpublished interviews and he gives us Olivier’s true character. He was an icon and he lived the life of a celebrity but was also down to earth. First and foremost, Olivier was an actor—that’s what and who he was. He was a man with charm and class; dashing and seductive. Actress Rosemary Harris said of him, “I don’t know anybody who had more sex appeal. Everybody, whatever sex you were, whether you were a cat, a dog or a mouse, you were in love with him.”
He was greatly admired by fellow actors and directors, also critics and, of course, audiences. Philip Ziegler was the man to write this bio of Sir Laurence. Ziegler has affection for the man but does not worship him, he writes wonderfully and he says what he has to say without stretching it out; he was able to decide what was important to include and what to throw out; he gave us the background in a way that it made it easier to read about the present and his sense of humor peeks at us all through the read. We get just enough about Olivier’s ancestry and his childhood. We learn that he was not an attractive child and this could have led to his love of costume and disguises. As a young man he did some acting at school and he was noticed and lauded by, visiting dignitaries. He began with small parts where he could get them and then joined the Birmingham Rep, where he met fellow actors Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson and it was there that he became a man and an actor. He worked tirelessly and it was not easy; it took him two years to learn how to move onstage, and another two to learn how to laugh. His friendship with Sir Ralph Richardson began at Birmingham and lasted as long as both men lived.
Ziegler gives us the complicated relationships that Olivier was involved in—some were friendship and some was based only on acquaintance and it is through these friendships that we get a history of the British theatre. “This involves countless friendships and enmities, apple polishing and backbiting among not only actors and directors, but also peers and politicians on theatrical boards, agent-producers like the mighty Binkie Beaumont, broadcast personalities and writers of all sorts: playwrights, critics, journalists, interviewers and what have you. Above all, there are liberal quotations from Olivier’s wives, children and anyone who knew him”.
In this biography, Olivier emerges as quite foul-mouthed but those that knew him, expected that from him as incongruent it is. Much about Olivier is revealed by his three marriages, all to actresses. (Ziegler mentions the rumors of homosexuality, but argues against them.) The first, to Jill Esmond, was almost a business deal. Two young actors teamed up for mutual support, for example traveling together to Hollywood. No lasting marriage, it was, however, a lasting friendship, although Olivier groused about the alimony: “She’s cost me £75,000 a coitus!” (Actually a saltier noun.) The middle, long marriage to Vivien Leigh began as Olivier’s probably only true passion, with the pair playing Romeo and Juliet both on and off the stage. But it eroded with the years, what with Vivien’s nervous breakdowns, a lengthy and flaunted affair with Peter Finch and the attrition of time. Olivier was also jealous of her winning an Oscar. He had a mature marriage to Joan Plowright and it was basically stable with Plowright giving him genuine support. But eventually this too went sour, largely through Olivier’s recklessness and jealousy when his career was falling short of hers.
Then there was Olivier’s relationship with the brilliant critic Kenneth Tynan, when Olivier, after much maneuvering with the board of directors, became head of the National Theater. He picked for his dramaturge the combative Tynan, who became as much headache as help. As Olivier declined in health, the book really becomes fascinating. Olivier’s triumphs include Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus, an almost scarily detailed Othello and the touchingly defiant, down-at-heel vaudevillian Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.” There were also his films— “Wuthering Heights,” “Rebecca” and three Shakespearean adaptations.
The biography is full of wonderful anecdotes especially those about the rivalries with Richardson, Gielgud and Olivier’s successor at the National, Peter Hall. This is a wonder of a read about a wonder of a man.