Lord Laurence Olivier

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One of this other more conspicuous contributions to the war effort was his joyously jingoistic film production of Henry V (1944), for which he served as producer, director, and star. Like all his future film directorial efforts, Henry V pulled off the difficult trick of retaining its theatricality without ever sacrificing its cinematic values. ‘Henry V’ won Olivier an honorary Oscar, not to mention major prizes from several other corners of the world. The King bestowed a Knighthood upon him in 1947, and he served up another celluloid Shakespeare the next year, producing, directing and starring in Hamlet (1948). This time he won two Oscars: one for his performance, the other for the film itself a feat only once again repeated by Roberto Benigni for ‘Life Is Beautiful’ (1997).

Olivier's stage work took precedence during the 1950s and 1960s, during which time he directed himself in only two other films: the spellbinding Richard III (1955) a film laden with the theatre's acting great (Gielgud is especially moving as Clarence); and ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ (1957).

Among the other British films, there are some razor-sharp character studies, such as the courteous, cautious policeman in ‘The Magic Box’ (1951), the investigating inspector in ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ (1965) and the failed teacher in ‘Term of Trial’ (1962). It is also a treat for future generations to have on film his seedy music hall ‘has been’ in ‘The Entertainer’ (1960), the theatrical version of which (1957-58) had marked his induction into the changing drama of the mid-century. His Mahdi in ‘Khartoum’ (1966) is really out acted by the quieter, more cinematic performance of Charlton Heston as General Gordon; this was symptomatic of how Olivier's mesmeric theatricality (and he is by no means alone in this matter in the history of British cinema) could sometimes seem too coarse for the intimacy of the cinema.

His personal life was never personal. He was married to Jill Esmond in 1930 and they finally divorced to allow Olivier to marry Vivien Leigh in 1940. They became one of the cinemas most famous double acts, appearing in both films and plays together. Vivien suffered from depression and during the couples tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1948 she suffered dreadfully from it. Laurence was later to remark he ‘had lost her’ in Australia. They both had affairs in the 1950’s and eventually divorced in 1960.

Larry then married Joan Plowright in 1961, his co-star in ‘The Entertainer’. Together the couple had three children, Richard Kerr, Tamsin Agnes Margaret and Julie-Kate. Both daughters are actresses. The couple were married until his death from cancer in 1989.. He was knighted in 1947 and in 1970, he became Lord Olivier and assumed a seat in the House of Lords the following year. Four years later, suffering from a life-threatening illness, he made his last stage appearance.

Sir Larry continued making two or three films a year well into his seventies and eighties, and was nominated twice more for Best Actor and once for Best Supporting Actor (none of them, it should be noted, for Shakespearean films!). He even did some TV, receiving five Emmy Awards, most notably for the delightful "Love Among the Ruins" (1975) in which he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn.

He was involved with Richard Attenborough in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (1977). His portrayal of the Dutch doctor caught up in the midst of a dreadful conflict was both sensitive and strong. He, by this stage, had both British and Danish Knighthoods. One of his best performances I felt (there are many!) came late in his film career as he played Ezra Lieberman, the Nazi Hunter, in ‘The Boys from Brazil’ (1978). Gregory Peck (brilliant every time) was outshone by Larry as he quietly and thoughtfully went about the task of tracking down Josef Mengele. The following year his ‘Van Helsing’ in the film ‘Dracula’ (1979) was thoughtful and although the film was poor Olivier hid not shame himself in role. By this stage he had established a record of near-unparalleled achievement on stage, screen and TV, and was so heaped with honours that nothing could have diminished him – even if the critics were having a go!

It should also be noted that even with wealth of noble titles, he refused to carry on a conversation with anyone who wouldn't address him as "Larry".

He was nominated 13 times for US Academy Awards and won 4

He was nominated for 8 British Academy Awards and won 2

Along the way he also collected 5 Emmy's, 3 Golden Globes and countless other accolades.

Thankfully he wasn't around last year when he was ranked 76th in Empire magazine's ‘The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time’ list.This fact makes me smile (and I know he would have smiled to) and is truly a comment on Empire and its readership. Oh and just so it’s all put into perspective..

Susan Sarandon was ranked 10
Nicole Kidman was ranked 39
Jane Fonda 65 (what!)

Fear not Larry - Clint Eastwood was 87...

‘We have all, at one time or another, been performers, and many of us still are - politicians, playboys, cardinals and kings’

'I should be soaring away with my head tilted slightly toward the gods, feeding on the caviar of Shakespeare. An actor must act.'

'I'd like people to remember me for a diligent expert workman. I think a poet is a workman. I think Shakespeare was a workman. And God's a workman. I don't think there's anything better than a workman'

'Living is strife and torment, disappointment and love and sacrifice, golden sunsets and black storms. I said that some time ago, and today I do not think I would add one word'


Confessions of a actor (1982)

Suggested films to see:

The Boys from Brazil (1978)
Richard III (1965)
Spartacus (1960)
Hamlet (1948)
That Hamilton Woman (1941)





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