Following the death of Laurence Olivier at age 82 in his home near London on July 11, Maclean’s asked Robertson Davies to write an appreciation of the English actor’s contributions during a career that spanned more than 60 years on the stage, in motion pictures and on television. Davies, best known as a novelist and essayist, also has had a long association with the theatre both as a playwright and a critic and—during the 1930s in England, when Olivier first won wide renown—briefly as an actor and then as assistant to the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie at London’s Old Vic Theatre. His assessment:
The past 50 years have been an age of great acting—as great, perhaps as any in the history of the English-speaking theatre. Three giants dominated the stage: John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, and of the three only Gielgud survives, at the age of 85. If, we say, as Byron did, “I am acquainted with no immaterial sensuality so delightful as good acting,” they gave us that delight in its highest reaches.
Of the three, Olivier must be accounted the greatest because his range was greatest. As Romeo and as Hamlet, he was not as fine as Gielgud, because he lacked Gielgud’s extraordinary feeling for poetry; as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, he had not the grandeur of Richardson, who made us see that the heroic and the bourgeois life are not incompatible. But as Othello he was finer than either because the part demanded the flamboyance, the athleticism and the delight in heaven-storming passion which were his strengths.
Nobody ever dared to call him an actor of the old school, but that was precisely what he was, and when the old school is the Great Old School, it cannot be beaten. His Othello was essentially a 19th-century star performance: Othello first, the rest nowhere. His Richard III was diabolic and grotesque in a way that no one had attempted since the death of Henry Irving, the previous century’s master Shakespearean. Olivier loved what used to be called “a dual role”—Oedipus followed by Mr. Puff in Sheridan’s The Critic in the same evening; Hotspur in Part I of Henry IV followed by the doddering Justice Shallow in Part II. He loved to act, to impersonate. He could be a matinee idol when occasion demanded, but
what he liked best were the assumptions of extraordinary personalities, and the wigs, false noses, characteristic walks and all that made the extraordinary seem not merely possible but inevitable.
He had no use for intellectual theories of acting and was often derisive of The Method. There is a story that when a Hollywood actor once bored him about the difficulty he was experiencing in showing some particular nuance of character, Olivier said, “Why don’t you just act it, cocky?” And by that he meant find
the tone of voice or the expression or the gesture which will evoke the feeling you want in your audience, and stop fussing about what you feel yourself; your job is not to feel, but to make others feel. Tearing yourself apart with emotion is not acting. Acting is not photography, but painting in oils.
A story is told of Irving to the same effect. Visiting the American tragedian Richard Mansfield in his dressing room after a performance, Irving found the actor drenched in sweat and drooping with fatigue. Mansfield ha-
rangued Irving about how much his work took out of him. “Well Dick,” said Irving, “if you find it unwholesome, m’boy, why do you do it?” Olivier did not find acting unwholesome. My wife, Brenda, who was a student at the Old Vic at the time, remembers his 1937 performance of the uncut text of Hamlet. On matinee days there was barely an hour between performances, and in that time Olivier, costumed and made up, gobbled a quick snack and was fresh and ready at the second curtain time of the day. His daily athletic workout and his singing les-
son kept him in condition for eight hours of the most exacting work.
He was not a man of distinguished appearance or remarkable physique, and this was one of the many ways in which he resembled David Garrick, the 18th-century actor-manager. He could, and did, look like anything at all. He said that he worked out his characterizations from the outside to the inside, trying varieties of makeup, wigs, false teeth and costume until he got what he wanted. We may take this with a grain of salt, assuming that he found inner character by developing the outer character. But he was predominantly a technical actor and, in that respect, a thorough professional who could play his part with precisely the same effect whether he was ill, or distressed, as he frequently was, for his private life was tumultuous. He owed it to his audience to be at the top of his form whenever he appeared, and he delivered the goods. That is what being a professional means, and all the three great actors of his era were professionals in this respect.
It was sometimes said of him, for he had his share of critical detraction, that he lacked pathos, but those who saw his superb Astrov in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya knew how false that was: not all the tragedy in the play was Vanya’s. He could evoke pity even for a character of terrible egotism, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, or the stoic Titus Andronicus. One of his piercingly pathetic roles was that of Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, it was the pathos of the failed comedian. He had the distinguished mark of the truly great player—a mark to be seen also in Gielgud and Richardson—for he was great in both comedy and tragedy, and could mingle both with lightning swiftness. \
Spectators who saw nim in his greatest roles sometimes assumed that he must be a man of great intellect, but that is not a necessary characteristic of the great actor. His autobiography (Confessions of an Actor) in 1982 was an experiment in another art form from which he should have been dissuaded, but nobody could divert him from anything he had made up his mind to do. The story of his experience as the Founding Director of Britain’s National Theatre, as we read it in Peter Hall’s Diaries, is a sad tale of whimsical egotism and occasional deviousness; except when on the stage, he was not a good colleague. But of his splendor as a great actor there can be no shadow of doubt.
Does his art remain to us in the films he made? They range from the triumphs of Henry V and Richard III to his embarrassing appearance in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, and at their best they give us only a part of what made him one of the two or three greatest actors in the history of the English-speaking theatre. It was his arresting quality, his extraordinary ability to seize upon an audience and for the play’s duration to hold them spellbound, that the camera could not wholly capture. To have seen him was a great experience, and to see his shadow on the screen is never more than a second best.
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