Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Laurence Olivier is regarded by most to be the single greatest stage actor of all time, and he ranks within the American Film Institute's top twenty-five film stars of all time. Anthony Holden's Olivier is a comprehensive biography of the man that covers his stage and film endeavors, personal life, and life-long search for self.
Going into this biography, I knew very little about Olivier as a man, but I was well-acquainted with Olivier as a myth. I regularly perform live-theater and am engaged in the theatrical community, and it is very difficult to do that without being aware of Olivier and his influence on the medium. One thing that surprised me in the biography is just how comparatively little Olivier did with film as compared to his theatrical career.
Thinking of these towering cinematic characters he played, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, it was a shock to think that those were among the few of his memorable film roles, among his even fewer memorable leading ones. He was truly a man of the theater, and that is where most of his legacy lies. Perhaps his best work, though, comes when he blended the two mediums, such as in his film adaptation of Hamlet, for which he won Best Picture and Actor Oscars. John Barrymore's Hamlet in 1922 is still legendary and regarded as perhaps the best ever translation of the character, and while I maintain my first stop if I had a time machine would be to see Barrymore's Hamlet, I feel Olivier's is the definitive Hamlet. Perhaps that is just because he benefits from having it filmed, but regardless, it is an undeniably transcendent performance as the Danish prince and that is what I immediately associate with Olivier when I hear his name.
Holden's biography does a tremendous job of weaving together the strands of Olivier's theatrical and film careers with his personal life. Again, knowing very little about Olivier personally going into this, I came out having learned quite a lot, especially about his twenty-year marriage to Vivien Leigh and how he handled (or at times, didn't) her deteriorating mental health during that time. Holden's prose kept this incredibly investing and entertaining, a biography that really does justice to such an enigmatic man. From the outset of the book, Holden sets out the central idea that Olivier's life was an actor's search for who he really was, and he expands that idea throughout the book. For a man who played so many characters so incredibly throughout his life, it truly seems like he never got a grasp on the character of Olivier, at least that is the conclusion to which Holden leads the reader.
This idea fascinated me, and the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with Holden. Describing Olivier is almost impossible to do without pulling at least one of his characters into it. He was a man so defined by the theater and what he did. He is also almost inextricable from Shakespeare, living a life that was in and of itself almost Shakespearean. I always maintain that perhaps the greatest public service Olivier ever did was making Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences through his incredible production of and performances in what remain probably the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare, his films. There is a reason 1948's Hamlet is often referred to as "Laurence Olivier's Hamlet." The man and the work are inseparable, but that leads to Olivier as a man being quite elusive. Even in reading a fairly comprehensive biography of his life, it is still difficult to pin him down. Regardless of who he was or how one chooses to describe him, his mark on theater is indelible and the way he used film as an extension of theatrical production was revolutionary. Holden's biography is a vivid picture of a man frequently in conflict with himself but who used that inner turmoil to create some of the most longlasting performances of all time.
[Peter] Ustinov concluded with what must surely be a far more fitting epitaph for Laurence Olivier: 'At his worst, he would have acted the parts more ably than they are usually lived.' At best, perhaps, he spent his life acting the role of Laurence Olivier more ably than anyone else could have lived it.
Anthony Holden, Olivier, p. 452
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher's Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see reviews!