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Laurence Olivier

by Susan King


Laurence Olivier, who was born May 22, 1907, is considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century earning his first of 12 Oscar nomination for lead actor for 1939’s “Wuthering Heights” and his last for 1978’s “The Boys from Brazil.”  He was the first actor to direct himself to a best actor Oscar for 1948’s “Hamlet.” Olivier also earned two honorary Oscars. Alas, not every film performance was a gem —Olivier won two Razzie Awards for worst performance for “The Jazz Singer” in 1981 and “Inchon” in 1983. 


Olivier was also a major star and accomplished director on the London stage and ran the prestigious National Theatre from 1963-1972. He frequently collaborated on stage with his second wife Vivien Leigh. Nominated for nine Emmys, he won five, including for “Moon and the Sixpence” in 1960 and “King Lear” in 1984. The stars came out for Olivier’s funeral — he died July 11, 1989 — and the event was considered so important it was televised on television.


Ironically, film stardom was elusive for Olivier. Hollywood beckoned when he was in his early 20s where he was being groomed as the next Ronald Colman. Olivier had the sonorous voice and sported a Colman-esque narrow mustache, but he was uncomfortable on screen. He was just too young and callow to be the next British sex symbol. To add insult to injury, he was dismissed as Greta Garbo’s leading man in 1933’s “Queen Christina” and replaced by her former amour, John Gilbert. 


According to TCM.com: “During rehearsals, Garbo found herself unable to relax with him. In fact, every time he touched her, she froze.”


Upon returning to London, Olivier became a major player on the London stage and had a bit more success on screen in 1937’s “Fire Over England,” with Leigh, the 1938 romantic comedy “The Divorce of Lady X,” with his friend Ralph Richardson and the jaunty 1939 spy comedy “Q Planes” also with Richardson. Hollywood came knocking again, this time to play the tragic Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 “Wuthering Heights.” According to TCM.com: “He would credit director William Wyler with teaching him the toned-down nuances of screen versus stage acting turning in his first Oscar-nominated performance.”


Olivier and Wyler reunited for the 1952 drama “Carrie” based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “Sister Carrie.” The film flopped at the box office and received decidedly mixed reviews. But at least in my opinion, “Carrie” features Olivier’s greatest film performance.


“Carrie” finds Olivier in his first American role, George Hurstwood, an unhappily married man who is a successful Chicago restaurant manager. He finds himself madly in love with the beautiful, young, and ambitious Carrie (Jennifer Jones). He ends up taking $10,000 from his boss and flees with Carrie to New York where everything falls apart for the illicit couple. After they break up, Carrie becomes successful actress, while George descends into poverty on Skid Row. 


According to TCM.com: “Although some in Hollywood had cautioned the director that the British actor was far more suitable for the role of the Midwestern Hurstwood, Wyler felt that Olivier’s elegance was perfectly suited for the role of a man who seduces Carrie with his sophistication. The only actor in Hollywood he thought he could pull off the role was Cary Grant, who had already turned it down.”


“Carrie” came at a perfect time for Olivier. He wanted to remain close to his wife Vivien Leigh — she was bipolar — who had returned to Hollywood to make “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Elia Kazan. Olivier directed Leigh on the London stage in the Tennessee Williams’ classic. Leigh, who won her first Oscar for “Gone with the Wind,” picked up her second Academy Award for “Streetcar.”


Though she initially denied it, Jones was pregnant during the production. She ended up having a miscarriage when the filming ended. The set was not a happy one. Though producer David O. Selznick, Jones’ husband who managed her with a steel-fist career, had promised Wyler he wouldn’t show up on set. However, the filmmaker was bombarded with memos from the “Gone with the Wind” producer regarding Jones. According to TCM.com., Olivier developed a leg ailment that caused him to be cranky leading him to ask for a closed set. He also didn’t like Jones “claiming in a letter to Leigh that ‘she doesn’t know anything about anything. No soul, like we always said about them [Jones and Selznick], dumb animals with human brains.’” Yikes.


Despite all the problems on set and with his co-star, Olivier’s is brilliant-you quite literally watch him die inside as his life slides further and further into tragedy; by the film’s conclusion all the life has gone out of his eyes. They are dead. It’s an extraordinary moment. 


The New York Times noted that his Hurstwood was “a genuine portrait of a pitifully disintegrating man…the steps in this man’s tragic downfall are reasonable and clear. The way of all flesh has never been more sentiently and gracefully revealed.” He should have been nominated for an Oscar, but at least Olivier earned a BAFTA nomination. Try to catch it. 


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