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 Oliviers Richard III, released in 1955. It
was showing for only one night. Id 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 Oliviers 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 Oliviers 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.
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 couldnt 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, its 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. Salingers 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 theres not a dry seat in the
house now thats 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
OToole, and Anthony Hopkins. Unfortunately, these superb actors
have done little Shakespeare on film; Scofields Lear is a
particularly severe disappointment to anyone who loves Shakespeare and
Branaghs 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.