Olivier, by Philip Ziegler
While written by a distinguished biographer, this often inaccurate study of the enigmatic and elusive Laurence Olivier lacks real insight
Vivien Leigh prepares to kiss Laurence Olivier in a scene from a stage production of Romeo and Juliet in 1940. Photograph: United Artists/Getty Images
To get a sense of the impact Laurence Olivier made at the height of his career, imagine a man who combined the acting skills of Daniel Day-Lewis with the fame of and adulation accorded to Brad Pitt.
An outstanding actor married, in Vivien Leigh, to one of the most famous and beautiful Hollywood stars, and something of a sex symbol himself, Olivier had the world at his feet. What makes him a fascinating figure of 20th-century British theatre is that he used that fame and his great organisational skills to create the conditions for the founding of the British National Theatre. He became its first director, heading one of the most brilliant repertory companies ever seen in London.
Armed with more than 50 hours of tapes Olivier recorded with Mark Amory of the Spectator for a putative memoir, Philip Ziegler’s new biography, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the National, attempts to provide a complete picture of this enigmatic and elusive subject. That he doesn’t fully succeed may be due to the nature of his quest rather than to a failure as a biographer.
The narrative rattles along and we get many descriptions – indeed a surfeit – of the roles Olivier played, the women he bedded, the parties he attended, the backstage jealousies and intrigues and the monumental clashes that attended the birth of the National Theatre. It was, as Lady Bracknell might remark, a life crowded with incident. Three marriages, all of which are marked with dramatic unhappiness, his eldest son practically excluded from his life and his other three children victims of benign neglect, he was clearly a man driven by his passion for his work and ready to sacrifice anything that distracted him from achieving the greatness that was his destiny.
For those familiar with the arc of Olivier’s career, from starring roles at school to the Birmingham Rep, to the first production of Coward’s Private Lives, to the Old Vic, the West End, Broadway, Hollywood and back to Chichester and the National Theatre, there is little new here, and Ziegler’s lack of theatrical background can be frustrating. There are many inaccuracies. Ziegler relies heavily on the printed critiques and on the notoriously faulty memories of colleagues, some of whom heartily disliked Olivier’s brusqueness.
Individual performances are routinely described as among the best he had ever given, but we rarely get any analysis of those performances or how they were achieved. Olivier was a master of disguises. That much is clear. He never met a false nose he couldn’t use or a wig that wouldn’t happily adorn his head. But behind that facade were a keen intelligence, an indefinable charisma and a dedication to detail in every performance. He dominated every play he was in, even when the role was tiny.
One of the most perceptive comments comes from Geraldine McEwan, who appeared with Olivier in a Feydeau farce at the Old Vic. “Well”, she said, “it used to be a play about a woman who thinks her husband is unfaithful to her; now it is about a butler who works for a woman who thinks her husband is unfaithful to her.”
Where Ziegler scores heavily and where the book justifies itself against many of its predecessors is its description of the drama surrounding the creation of the British National Theatre – a cherished dream since the time of George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker. It took Olivier’s unparalleled skills and international acclaim to move the concept to reality.