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 Olivier and His Successors 

May 1, 2003

When I was in high school in the early 1960s, I borrowed the family car and drove forty miles to Detroit to see a movie: Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, released in 1955. It was showing for only one night. I’d been dying to see it for years, but had only heard it on a recording. So I knew the soundtrack by heart and had made my journey just to see the images.

I was thrilled. I worshipped Shakespeare and Olivier, and Olivier’s three Shakespeare films (the other two were Henry V, 1945, and Hamlet, 1948) were the joy of my youth. I could occasionally — rarely! — see them when the local Cinema Guild revived them.

In those days the home video was still undreamed of. Today I can watch them any time I please. This has an obvious drawback: the thrill is pretty much gone. Olivier was the most electrifying Shakespearean actor of his time, but today his performances are so familiar to me that they have the effect of lullabies. I often fall asleep to them.

In fact I also have videos of other actors in the same roles: Ian McKellen as Richard III, Kenneth Branagh as Henry V, and more Hamlets than you can shake a spear at. They make Olivier’s versions seem a little old-fashioned, but they have none of his magnificence, his panther fury, his genius for making a line of Shakespeare sound like a trumpet blast.

[Breaker quote: Tragedy without grief]In 1956 Olivier gave a legendary performance as Macbeth at Stratford upon Avon, with his wife, Vivien Leigh, as Lady Macbeth. He wanted to film that too, but he couldn’t raise the money. What a loss! But the hard fact is that his three Shakespeare films, though now regarded as classics, lost money at their first release.

In 1964 Olivier made another stage sensation with his first Othello in London. It was never turned into a genuine movie, but the stage version was filmed and released in movie theaters here — for a single day. Happily, it’s now available on video, as are his later performances as Shylock and King Lear. The latter was his final Shakespearean role, taped a few years before his death. In old age he is hardly recognizable as the same actor who played a heroic young Henry V — until he roars his lines.

Versatile as he was, Olivier had his limitations, and they are visible on the screen. He could project anger, intensity, and wit, but not emotional warmth. Even in his days as a young romantic leading man he always conveyed a certain remoteness. He had grace, style, fire, and magnetism to burn, but he seemed almost heartless.

His style of acting was rather calculating, as his memoirs reveal. He knew how to create an effect on the audience — in this he was peerless — but he tended to treat acting as a form of crowd control. The depths of a Shakespearean character were beyond him, which is why his villainous Richard was probably his finest role, while the great tragic roles never quite brought out his best. His Othello conveys amazing jealousy, but not the deep grief that is essential to the tragedy. J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield complains that Olivier played Hamlet “too much like a goddam general or something.” Well said.

Olivier once exposed his philosophy of acting in a witticism. A friend said his Lear left “not a dry eye in the house.” “Thanks, old man,” Olivier replied, “but when there’s not a dry seat in the house — now that’s acting!” He preferred, so to speak, other bodily fluids to tears.

Drama critics used to dub every promising actor “the next Olivier,” and his putative successors have included Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Peter Finch, Peter O’Toole, and Anthony Hopkins. Unfortunately, these superb actors have done little Shakespeare on film; Scofield’s Lear is a particularly severe disappointment to anyone who loves Shakespeare and admires Scofield.

Branagh’s recent Hamlet is a sin against Shakespeare — all “antic disposition,” no pathos — but his film does feature one wonderful supporting player: Derek Jacobi as the King. Jacobi makes the murderous usurper more interesting, more sympathetic, and even, in a way, more tragic, than the Prince. The film should have been called I, Claudius.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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