In the presence of greatness - and hubris

For Olivier, applause was sweeter than life itself.

The drama critic Harold Hobson was quick to recognize Laurence Olivier's greatness, writes Terry Coleman in Olivier, the hefty, official (but by no means hagiographical) new biography. In 1933, Mr. Hobson wrote that Olivier's performance in "The Rats of Norway" was "heartbreaking" and later listed it as one of the seven moments in the theater when he had been "in the presence of greatness."

Olivier also seems to have been aware of his greatness - possibly too aware.

Richard Eyre, who became director of Britain's National Theatre (originally Olivier's baby, about which there is much in this biography), observed that his predecessor "was a man for whom applause was almost better than life itself."

Yet Olivier distrusted and protested against the notion of inborn genius, and insisted that acting is a craft or trade demanding exhaustive, scrupulous skills; research; practice; and detailed preparedness. According to Coleman, he "achieved greatness" (although he didn't object if it was also "thrust upon him.")

A credible biography must delve into the vanities and personal flaws of its subject as well as the triumphs, and Coleman shows us that Olivier was not always a particularly admirable man, whatever his personal charisma.

He was excessively self-regarding (after all he and his second wife, Vivien Leigh, were virtually the royals of the British theater), wilfully ambitious; brutal toward others one minute, guilt-ridden the next; and often plain dishonest in his recollections if he could effectively embellish the Olivier myth.

He could be exceedingly funny on stage, yet through this long look at his private as well as his public life, there are few hints of warmth in Olivier's sense of humor.

What he did have was his personal share of vulnerability underneath the egotism. Coleman repeats, for example, a revealing recollection of John Mills about Olivier's opening night as Richard III (the Shakespearean antihero whom he later portrayed memorably on screen). Olivier asked his friend to see him in his dressing room. "There he was in his makeup. 'Sit down,' he said. 'You are my best friend, so I don't ever try to fool you. I'm just telling you that you're in for a very poor evening. I'm lousy in the part. I don't know it, and I just want you to know that I know'.... The curtain went up, on came his lordship, and said, 'Now is the winter of our discontent' ... and the whole theatre froze. It was the performance of a lifetime."

One critic compared it to the renowned Richard III of Edmund Kean.

Coleman then adds: "It was the first time in his life, in twenty years on the stage, that [Olivier] sensed that the public, the critics, and he himself, all together, knew that a performance of his had been right. He breathed in the sweet smell of success, which he described as like seaweed, or like oysters."

He had, more than once, tasted failure. For instance, although eventually he succeeded (at least to a degree) in his bid to be a Hollywood matinee idol, Garbo famously rejected him as her leading man. (Much later he admitted she was right.)

He would occasionally taste failure again. As a classical actor he was a comparatively late developer: "By the time he was twenty-eight," Coleman points out, "he had never played in a single play by Shakespeare." (Unless, that is, you count his schoolboy performance of Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew," praised highly by no less an actor than Ellen Terry.)

Olivier had an extraordinary instinct as an actor, and along with it, an almost reckless courage. He was physically daring.

Indeed, he was very physical, finding his way to his multiplicity of radically different characters from the outside in. Physical appearance came first, inner feeling later.

But the feeling was there all right. He could be startlingly moving. He combined an extraordinary virility with a strange degree of femininity.

Coleman discusses at length the balance of male and female in Olivier's character, concluding that some reports of his sexual proclivities have been much exaggerated and that what really mattered anyway was the way he used his personal character to inform his art.

Olivier has often been contrasted with John Gielgud. Their style of acting was very different. And this biography also discloses striking differences in their personal characters.

Coleman quotes Gielgud's generous and thoughtful appreciation of Olivier the actor (though confessing that he was rather frightened of him). It was Gielgud who first gave Olivier the opportunity to shine in Shakespeare. Coleman writes: "[Olivier] owed a great debt to Gielgud but never acknowledged it. Perhaps he simply didn't see it that way."

His comments on Gielgud's acting were scarcely appreciative. Probably Olivier used Gielgud's special powers as the potent enemy to be defeated so that he could discover his own opposing "reality."

Although Olivier's dedication to the founding of a National Theatre was enormous, and possibly involved a sense of "destiny" rather than mere ambition, he was first and foremost an actor.

Richard Eyre is given by Coleman the opportunity to present a balanced view of this actor's achievement. "As Eyre saw it, it wasn't necessarily that Olivier was the greatest actor of his time. He simply satisfied a desire for actors to be larger than life, and to be able to be seen to be acting at the same time as they were moving an audience to tears or laughter."

But then isn't that pretty much what all remarkable actors do?

Christopher Andreae has been writing for the Monitor since the 1960s. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

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