Last Saturday evening I listened to Radio 4’s Archive Hour, which was devoted to Olivier. There was the usual discussion about how great an actor was he, how his style of acting is completely out of fashion, the ‘compare and contrast’ with Gielgud. Sadly, nothing can convey stage presence and a whole generation has been put off him completely simply because he blacked up for Othello. I once saw a television programme in which an English teacher (rot him!), with the help of video, took his class through Olivier’s Othello and by leading questions got them all thinking he was a lousy actor and grossly overrated. I wanted to hit him and his smug sixth formers, too.
It is true that Olivier was obsessed with external appearances. He famously said to Michael Caine (Sleuth) that he didn’t know how he could just appear as himself, naked as it were. But he found Caine a better actor than he expected. I prize his cutting put down to Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man), if it’s true: ‘My dear boy, why don’t you try acting.’. This was when Hoffman had deprived himself of sleep in order to act according to ‘Method’. When you saw the man on stage, you would at first notice the mannerisms, the bits of business but after a while that stopped, he won you over, you loved him.
Making an audience love you was what theatre was once all about. Olivier’s career began at a time when audiences dressed up for the theatre and accepted extremely Luvvie behaviour. It ended with people turning up in jeans at theatres where bare boards and plastic seats replaced plush. And, to his credit, he went with it. He was also of course a brilliant film actor and not everyone can do both. Now, when you watch Rebecca or Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice it all seems over the top but again, he changed. Those scene stealing roles in Oh What a Lovely War and The Battle of Britain; Sleuth and Marathon Man, already mentioned, and his wonderful television performance in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round my Father show how he mastered the medium.
Everyone on the Archive Hour agreed that Olivier’s strength as an actor was in his charisma, physicality and wonderful voice. Albert Finney had those same qualities but does little stage work now. Robert Lindsay has it but earns money doing rubbishy My Family. I’ve seen Lindsay on stage and he’s magnetic. No actor is likely ever again to perform Shakespeare the way Olivier and Gielgud did, the way that is so easy to parody. But if Gielgud whispered in the theatre you could hear every word in the gods whereas nowadays there is too much muttering for my taste. I think modern actors, having gone straight into television or film without the repertory training most actors had in the past, have learnt the lesson that in film less is more but then unfortunately taken this practice to the stage, where larger than life is what is needed.
So, I salute Lord Olivier, Sir Laurence Olivier, Larry, for his fantastic contribution to theatre and may his memory be honoured in the future, too. The following pictures are from programmes I have kept.
In The Dance of Death
programme for Love for Love
In The Master Builder
programme for Othello