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Laurence Olivier - Star of the Month
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Richard III

Richard III

In 1955, Laurence Olivier brought to the screen what most critics consider his greatest Shakespearean role, the hunchbacked nobleman who murders his way to the throne, and won his fifth Oscar® nomination. Although now considered a classic and, to many, the best of his three Shakespeare films, Richard III lost money in the U.S., which may have cost his towering performance the Academy Award®.

Olivier first played Richard in 1944, when it became his first major post-war success. Modeled in part on Broadway producer Jed Harris, whom the actor considered one of the most evil people he had ever met, his Richard was as charismatic as he was crafty, luring the audience into caring about his fate before committing his greatest crimes, including the murder of the two young nephews who stand between him and the throne. It also represented one of his most extreme physical transformations, from the limp that made him look like a human spider, to the tapering, rat-like fingers.

By the mid-'50s, Olivier was in a critical slump. Although he was enjoying a long run in London opposite wife Vivien Leigh in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince (which he would film with Marilyn Monroe as The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957), the play was a trifle. Nor had his other recent stage or screen work done much to enhance the reputation of a man once hailed as the greatest actor of the British stage. Hoping to turn things around, he set out to secure funding for a film version of Macbeth in which he hoped to team with Leigh. When he had trouble finding the money, Sir Alexander Korda suggested that Richard III might be more bankable. Not only did he offer to fund the film, but also he promised to produce Macbeth for Olivier if Richard III proved profitable. With urging from Leigh, his son Tarquin and director Sir Carol Reed, he finally agreed, though Olivier only consented to direct the film when Reed proved unavailable.

Initially, Olivier wanted to assemble an all-star cast. He approached Richard Burton about playing Richard's usurper, the future Henry VII, and also offered small roles to Robert Donat, John Mills and Richard Attenborough. Although none of them were available, he eventually assembled a cast that included four knights of the British Empire: himself, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. The latter was only cast because he had asked for the role of Buckingham, the conspirator Richard ultimately betrays. Olivier had wanted to cast another friend, Orson Welles, but couldn't disappoint Richardson. Years later he would admit that Welles would have been better in the role. During filming, he felt Richardson was playing too much for audience sympathy and failed to capture the character's deviousness.

Leigh wanted to play Lady Anne, the woman Richard seduces after murdering her father-in-law, but Olivier chose the younger Claire Bloom instead. Korda then suggested he cast Leigh in a silent cameo, a role specially created for the film version, but instead Olivier convinced the producer to cast her in another of his films, The Deep Blue Sea, a leading role he felt better suited to her talents. Not having Leigh around on the set proved fortuitous for the director-star, as he had an affair with Bloom during shooting.

To prepare for the film version, Olivier spent two weeks in virtual seclusion as he rethought his characterization of Richard in filmic terms. He also enlisted scholar Alan Dent, who had worked on his other Shakespeare films, to help him shape the text for the screen. As in the past, he preferred cutting out entire characters and scenes to simply trimming lines within scenes, which he would later say left you with "a mass of short ends." Shakespeare scholars would quarrel with his elimination of Margaret, the mad queen whose husband Richard had killed, but others were impressed by his insertion of the coronation of Richard's brother from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 to help clarify the play's historical background. Olivier also inserted lines from Colley Cibber and David Garrick's 18th century stage adaptations of the play. He changed the body over which Lady Anne mourns from her father-in-law's to her husband's and added a clear indication that Richard had killed him, too, so that her capitulation to his courtship would be more dramatic. And he re-staged Richard's death so that he was slaughtered by enemy soldiers, many his former allies, rather than killed in one-on-one combat with Henry VII, thus turning his death into a form of national cleansing after Richard's corrupt rule.

Olivier reassembled the production team from his other Shakespeare films, including production designer Roger Furse, art director Carmen Dillon, composer William Walton and associate director Anthony Bushell. As with Henry V, they modeled the film's look on the illustrations in the medieval Book of the Hours. The sets featured bright colors, while Olivier staged the actors in often symmetrical tableaux. Feeling he couldn't top the battle scenes from Henry V, Olivier decided to model the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field on medieval tapestries, only adding realism in closer shots of brutal hand-to-hand combat.

Those scenes could not be shot on their original location, as the region had been modernized since the 15th century. Instead, Bushell found a bull farm outside Madrid where the foliage was green enough to pass for England and secured the cooperation of the Spanish Army. This was a decade before Spain would become the "go to" location for epic filmmakers around the world. Olivier scheduled the climactic battle for the first days of shooting and worked overtime to make the 500 extras look like two armies totaling 60,000 men.

The battle scenes turned out to be the most dangerous in Richard III. One scene was delayed a day when, as the light was fading, one of the actor's horses decided to mount Olivier's. That wasn't the worst the star had to endure. For a scene in which Richard's horse is shot out from under him, Olivier wanted to charge the camera, moving into a close up as the arrow struck his horse. The horse was appropriately padded, but Olivier wasn't. As he drove the horse toward the camera, he shifted his leg, and the master bowman sent his shaft right through Olivier's calf. After completing the shot, the actor asked Bushell if they had gotten it right. He then discussed ways to incorporate the accident within the scene's final cut. Only then did he call for a doctor. Fortunately, the arrow had struck his left leg, the leg on which Richard limped, so there were no delays waiting for the wound to heal.

In fact, there were few delays during the shooting, and Olivier brought Richard III in ahead of schedule in just 17 weeks (compared to six months shooting on Hamlet, 1948). This was particularly impressive given the intricacy of the production. Olivier's makeup, including hump back and withered hand, took three hours to apply each day. In addition, he used long takes throughout the film to allow the actors to build their scenes more theatrically. His opening soliloquy was shot in one nine-minute take. When he almost dropped the king's crown in the first scene, rather than re-shoot, he used the accident to create a motif for the film. The crown, as symbol of the British throne, runs throughout the film, shot from a variety of angles until it falls from Richard's head in the final battle and is handed to his successor.

Richard III opened to mostly favorable reviews in England, with C.A. Lejeune of The Observer stating, "Olivier may have savaged the play's text, but he cuts deep and true to the play's spirit." It would win three British Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best British Film and Best Film From Any Source. Released as Olivier was enjoying a triumphant season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, Richard III brought him back into critical favor.

In the U.S., Korda cut a deal with NBC to broadcast the film's premiere for $500,000. At three hours, the Sunday afternoon telecast was the longest dramatic TV program to that time. It scored the highest rating ever for a daytime broadcast other than sports, with an estimated 40 million people watching -- more than had seen the play in theatres since its premiere in 1592. But Olivier was not pleased. The wide-screen production had not been intended for the almost square television screens of the time, and few but the richest viewers were able to see the program in color. In addition, much of the violence in the final scene had been cut. Worst of all were the ads. NBC promoted the film with the line "Yessirree! When do four good (k)nights equal three top TV hours?" There were only three commercial breaks during the film, but they were more of a disruption than the director wanted, particularly when one advertised a car with "more power than all of the horses in Richard III."

To make matters worse, the TV airing probably helped account for the film's poor box office showing in the U.S. Although the film played 10 weeks in its first theatre in New York City it did not do as well in the rest of the country, which may account for its being the only one of Olivier's three Shakespeare adaptations not to receive an Oscar® nomination for Best Picture. When it was reissued in 1966, however, it broke box office records around the world, including the U.S.

Shortly after the release of Richard III, Olivier suffered a more personal loss. Korda died suddenly of a heart attack. Beyond the loss of a good friend, and one of the few British film producers he trusted, Korda's death cost Olivier the chance to film Macbeth as promised. He almost assembled a new deal with producer Mike Todd, but then Todd died in a plane crash, leaving one of the star's most acclaimed Shakespearean performances unfilmed.

Producer: Laurence Olivier, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Director: Laurence Olivier
Screenplay: Laurence Olivier (uncredited), Alan Dent (uncredited)
Based on the play by William Shakespeare with additions by Colley Cibber, David Garrick
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Roger K. Furse
Music: William Walton
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Richard III), Cedric Hardwicke (King Edward IV of England), Ralph Richardson (Duke of Buckingham), John Gielgud (George, Duke of Clarence), Pamela Brown (Jane Shore), Claire Bloom (The Lady Anne), Laurence Naismith (The Lord Stanley), Michael Gough (Dighton, 1st murderer), Helen Haye (Duchess of York), Patrick Troughton (Tyrell), Stanley Baker (Henry, Earl of Richmond).

by Frank Miller

Laurence Olivier by John Cottrell



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