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Laurence Olivier - Star of the Month
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Laurence Olivier Profile

One of the greatest actors of the 20th century, Laurence Olivier built his reputation on a unique combination of stage and screen work. Unlike other acclaimed British thespians like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Olivier came to the movies not as a character actor or an occasional leading man in special projects. He was a full-fledged movie star whose accomplishments in theatrical, cinematic and later television work created a unique synergy. Adding to his popularity was his glamorous if often troubled marriage to Vivien Leigh, his co-star in numerous stage and film projects, making him one of the most distinctive and distinguished stars in entertainment history.

In a career that lasted more than 60 years, there seemed to be nothing Olivier couldn't do. On stage, he appeared in an impressive span of classics, from the great works of Shakespeare and the classic Greeks to Restoration comedy and Chekhov. But he also essayed contemporary roles, with early triumphs in R.C. Sheriff's World War I drama Journey's End and Noel Coward's comedy Private Lives and later successes in works by John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He even tackled musical comedy in the film version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1953), which marked director Peter Brook's first screen credit. Even the roles he didn't play were impressive. He was first choice for Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972), Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962), Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in The Leopard (1963), Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Arthur Hamilton/Charley Evans in Seconds (1966).

But as much of a loss as his not playing those parts might seem, those he did play constitute a gallery of some of the screen's greatest performances. A simple sign of his success is the awards and honors accorded him: an Oscar® for Best Actor, three New York Film Critics Awards, two Golden Globes, two Best Actor awards from the National Board of Review, five Emmys and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. His ten Oscar® nominations for acting (not to mention one for directing and two for Best Picture) are only matched by Bette Davis and only surpassed by the 12 nominations scored by Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn.

Olivier was born in 1907, the son of an Anglican priest and the youngest of three children. Although his father ran a tight ship, it was he who encouraged his son to go into acting. Olivier had started appearing in school plays at the age of nine, impressing stage great Ellen Terry with his youthful performance as Brutus in Julius Caesar and later playing Kate in a boy's school production of The Taming of the Shrew. After two years at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company. Within just a year, he had moved from supporting roles to playing Hamlet. Then he reached a larger audience in the first production of Journey's End, which would become an international hit (though other actors appeared in the play's Broadway and film versions).

The now-lost Too Many Crooks (1930) marked Olivier's film debut, and before long Hollywood came calling with a role in RKO's Friends and Lovers (1931), which co-starred Adolphe Menjou, Erich von Stroheim and Lili Damita in a tale of love and betrayal that flopped at the box office. The studio then cast him opposite their top female star, Ann Harding, in Westward Passage (1932), but his role as her argumentative, self-centered husband did little better. His lot improved as Gloria Swanson's husband in the comedy of manners Perfect Understanding (1933), but with his stage career taking off, the actor thought little of film work. Nor did it help that he had lost a high-profile role in Queen Christina (1933) when star Greta Garbo failed to warm to him and demanded he be replaced with her former love, John Gilbert.

By that time, Olivier had scored an international hit in Noel Coward's Private Lives, which he played in London with Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and his first wife, Jill Esmond. The company took the play to the U.S., where he made his Broadway debut as Lawrence's callow new husband. He would return to Broadway with another London hit, also co-starring his wife, Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, a controversial play hinting at a homosexual affair between Olivier's young artist and his wealthy mentor. But it was his work in Shakespeare, particularly with director Tyrone Guthrie, that made him a top British stage star. He and Guthrie brought a modern, psychological approach to his work in plays like Romeo and Juliet, in which he and Gielgud alternated in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio. Olivier followed with a successful season at the Old Vic, where he won acclaim as Henry V, Coriolanus and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.

Olivier's film career began to pick up, too, when he signed with Alexander Korda's London Film Productions. Korda cast him in showier roles than had his earlier producers. He played pioneering balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi in the Kordas' semi-documentary Conquest of the Air, first released in 1936 and then updated for a 1940 U.S. release, and sailed the seas heroically for Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) in Fire Over England (1937), which made him a matinee idol. More important than his fan following, in that film he won the heart of co-star Vivien Leigh. The picture marked the beginning of their romance, though they would live together for three years until each could obtain divorces from their first spouses. With that film's international success, followed by the romantic comedy The Divorce of Lady X (1938), co-starring Merle Oberon, Hollywood came calling again.

For his return to Hollywood, Olivier was cast in one of the greatest romances ever made, Wuthering Heights (1939). Although unhappy that Leigh had been passed over for the female lead in favor of Oberon, he was thrilled to work with director William Wyler. He would later claim that it was Wyler who really taught him how to adapt from stage acting to film. The result was a major hit that made him a big star in the U.S. and brought him his first Oscar® nomination. It led to continued Hollywood work in Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and a sophisticated script by Aldous Huxley, and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (both 1940), which brought him another Oscar® nomination and won Best Picture. Olivier had hoped that Leigh would be his co-star in both pictures (as she had hoped he would co-star in her 1940 Waterloo Bridge) but had to content himself with the fact that by 1940 they were finally free to marry.

With World War II raging in Europe, Olivier hoped to enter military service with the RAF, but though he trained for flight duty, contractual obligations kept him out of air. At the same time, however, his film and stage work helped keep up morale on the home front. He re-teamed with Leigh for That Hamilton Woman (1941), a romance about Admiral Horatio Nelson's romance with Lady Emma Hamilton. With its depiction of the fight against Napoleon as a battle in the name of freedom and two rousing speeches penned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the film was a flag-waving hit in England and the U.S. that has continued as the couple's most popular film together. He also starred in 49th Parallel (1941), a propaganda film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger about downed German flyers trying to escape through Canada. As the biggest star in an all-star cast, Olivier played a French-Canadian trapper in the producers' efforts to win the support of French Canadians, many of whom were Axis sympathizers. He engaged in more flag-waving as a Russian engineer who finds love during wartime service in England in The Demi-Paradise (1943). On stage, Olivier contributed to the war effort by taking over the Old Vic with friend Ralph Richardson, where they staged acclaimed productions of Richard III, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and, in a dazzling show of diversity, a double bill of Oedipus Rex and the Restoration comedy The Critic, with Olivier playing the leading roles in both in a single evening.

It was his next film, however, that would represent his greatest contribution to British morale. In the 1930s, Olivier had planned a production of Shakespeare's Henry V that would have debunked the patriotic play. With the outbreak of World War II, however, he reconceived it as a flag-waving film paying tribute to both the heroism of the British military and the country's glorious theatrical legacy. To capture the latter, he started the film in a replica of the Globe Theatre, where he re-created the performance conditions of Shakespeare's times, before moving to location scenes shot around Great Britain and Ireland. At the end, he returned the film to the Globe's stage, creating a dazzling tour de force. And for the first time, he both produced and directed himself. The film was a huge hit in England and the U.S., bringing him the New York Film Critics Award and National Board of Review Award for Best Actor and Oscar® nominations for his performance and Best Picture. It also brought him a special Oscar® "For his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director." For his contributions to the war effort, he was knighted in 1947, the youngest actor ever to win that honor.

Olivier topped himself with his next film, Hamlet (1948). Adding scenes described in the original text and shooting the film to emphasize his psychological interpretation of the role, he created a brooding, dreamlike masterpiece that brought him a second New York Film Critics Award, the Golden Globe, Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival and, finally, the Oscar® for Best Actor. It also was a surprise Best Picture winner, becoming the first British film to capture that award. Olivier was also the first person to direct himself to an acting Oscar® and, to date, the only performer to win the award for a Shakespearean role.

The same year, he was named to the Board of Directors of the Old Vic, for whom he and Leigh mounted a tour of classic plays to Australia and New Zealand. During the tour, the couple discovered the Australian-born Peter Finch, whom Olivier invited to join the company, despite the fact that Leigh had had an affair with him. Back in England, the couple enjoyed a series of stage triumphs, including A Streetcar Named Desire, with Olivier directing Leigh before she played the role in Hollywood, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Macbeth. He also directed and starred in his third Shakespearean film, Richard III (1955). The picture debuted on NBC in the U.S. with record ratings. He won an Oscar® nomination for his performance, but the film lost money, though it is now considered his best Shakespeare film. Its poor box office performance made it impossible for him to finance his dream project, a film version of Macbeth to co-star Leigh, despite the fact that they were considered the finest Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of their time.

Instead, he filmed a comedy in which he had co-starred with Leigh on stage, turning The Sleeping Prince into The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. His difficulties working with the troubled star would inspire the hit comedy My Week with Marilyn (2011), with Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh winning Oscar® nominations for playing Monroe and Olivier, respectively, and Julia Ormond as Leigh. He also cemented his position as the world's leading classical actor by effortlessly stealing The Devil's Disciple (1959), a Shaw adaptation, from athletic stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas despite appearing in only a few scenes as the Revolutionary War's General Burgoyne.

Despite his reputation as one of the world's great classical actors, however, by the late 1950s Olivier felt the need to adapt to changing times. A new realism had appeared on the British stage in the form of the "Angry Young Man" plays, pioneered by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Not only did Olivier sign on to star in Osborne's latest play, The Entertainer, but he also attended classes in the Method with some of the cast's younger actors. His role as washed up musical hall entertainer Archie Rice was another triumph on the London stage, on Broadway and on film, bringing him an Oscar® nomination. As an added bonus, years after he had realized that his marriage to the troubled Leigh was over, he found love again with Joan Plowright, the actress cast as his daughter. Leigh was crestfallen, but agreed to a divorce so he could marry the younger woman.

Olivier continued to explore more modern approaches to entertainment in the realistic film Term of Trial (1962), as an alcoholic school teacher accused of rape by one of his students, and Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Otto Preminger's cryptic mystery about the search for an abducted child. He also essayed one more Shakespearean role on screen with a direct film transfer of his stage performance in Othello (1965), co-starring Maggie Smith. The film brought him another Oscar® nomination.

By the late 1960s, Olivier was regarded as an elder statesman of stage and screen. As founding artistic director, he helped create the National Theatre, using his position to encourage young performers like Smith, Michael Gambon, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. Stage triumphs of that period included August Strindberg's The Dance of Death, Chekhov's The Three Sisters and Eugene O'Neil's Long Day's Journey into Night, all of which he filmed, winning an Emmy for the latter. On screen, he played the Soviet premier in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and traded barbs with Michael Caine in the thriller Sleuth (1972), which brought him his third New York Film Critics award and scored Oscar® nominations for both stars.

By that point, however, failing health had begun to interfere with his work. The National Theatre's board canceled plans for a long-dreamed-of revival of Guys and Dolls in which he had hoped to play Nathan Detroit because they didn't think he could handle the role physically. He increased his presence in film during those later years, partly out of a desire to provide a proper inheritance for his children (one by first wife Esmond and three with Plowright). The results were often spectacular, as when he played a Nazi war criminal in Marathon Man (1976), staring Dustin Hoffman, a Nazi hunter in The Boys from Brazil (1978), co-starring Gregory Peck, and an aging gigolo in A Little Romance (1979), with Diane Lane. The first two won him Oscar® nominations. But he also appeared in his fair share of clinkers, winning back-to-back Razzies for The Jazz Singer (1980) and Inchon (1981). The latter was released the same year as Clash of the Titans (1981), a special effects extravaganza in which he starred as Zeus, rising from playing princes and kings to become a god.

For many, he was indeed an acting god. His late career was marked by a series of lifetime achievement awards, including an Academy Fellowship from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press and a second special Oscar® in 1979 for "the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contributions to the art of film." In recognition of his many contributions to the British stage and screen, Queen Elizabeth II elevated him to the peerage in 1970, making him the only actor to attain the title Baron. Even at that point, however, he preferred people to call him "Larry" rather than "Sir Laurence" or "Lord Olivier." Olivier finished his film career with a silent cameo as an aged veteran in Derek Jarman's War Requiem (1989), adapted from Benjamin Britten's choral work. Six months later, he died of renal failure at the age of 82. TCM pays tribute to Laurence Olivier's amazing career with 26 films airing throughout April, ranging from early rarities to fan favorites to some of the greatest acting ever put on screen -- Friends and Lovers (1931), Westward Passage (1932), Perfect Understanding (1933), Fire Over England (1937), The Divorce of Lady X (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), Conquest of the Air (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Rebecca (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), That Hamilton Woman (1941), The Demi-Paradise (1943), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), The Beggar's Opera (1953), Richard III (1955), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), The Devil's Disciple (1959), The Entertainer (1960), Term of Trial (1962), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Othello (1965), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), Sleuth (1972), A Little Romance (1979), Clash of the Titans (1981).

by Frank Miller


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