Sir Laurence Olivier. The name still conjures images of theater acting at its most erudite and unapproachable. This was the man responsible for making Shakespeare a mainstay of the silver screen as well as the stage, undeniably one of the most important figures in the history of Western cinema. And up until recently, I had no clue who he was.
Sure, I'd seen him in films before, usually as the villain. There he was in "Spartacus" as the evil Roman general, and in "Marathon Man" as a nazi dentist. He was one of the leads in the original "Sleuth," one of my favorite crime films, and a strong supporting presence in Alfred Hitchcock's spectacular "Rebecca." I'd come across plenty of references to Olivier when reading up on the lives of Vivien Leigh and David Niven. And his influence, of course, is inescapable. Kenneth Branaugh's career, for instance, often seems to be patterned directly after Olivier's. Yet I'd never seen the films that Olivier was best known for, the Shakespeare adaptations.
I decided to fix that. I recently sat down with "Henry V" (1944), "Hamlet" (1948), and "Richard III" (1955), the famous Shakespeare trilogy that Olivier directed and starred in. All three films are currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. I know I'd seen "Hamlet" a long time ago in an English class, but didn't remember much, and I've seen several other versions of "Hamlet" since then. Better to start over from the beginning. I spaced the films out over a couple of days - they don't run much longer than two and a half hours apiece, and significantly abridge the original plays, but the text is dense and I'm not as familiar with Shakespeare's "War of the Roses" tetralogies as I should be.
So, what do I think of Laurence Olivier now? As Bette Davis is rumored to have said of Errol Flynn, "Damn, he's good."
My biggest surprise was that Olivier turned out to be a tremendous director. His "Hamlet" is a moody, gothic piece, where the camera skulks around a chilly Elsinore Castle with the tormented Danish prince. "Richard III" makes the viewers complicit in the machinations of the murderous hunchback, as he has a habit of addressing the audience directly. And then there's "Henry V," which starts in the famous Globe theater with a lively period performance of the play, that slowly transitions into a full-scale epic cinematic retelling. Far from being the stuffy, formal, overly faithul adaptations I was expecting, the films livened up the material with plenty of action and a few gory killings here and there. I can see why they were so popular when they first hit theater screens in the 40s and 50s.
As an actor, Olivier lives up to his reputation. His performances as Hamlet and Henry are big and exciting. His thunderous Saint Crispin's Day speech in "Henry V" is the best one I've ever heard. And he doesn't just stab Claudius at the end of "Hamlet," but leaps off a platform and tackles the evil king to floor before running him through. I preferred his quieter moments though, getting existential with Yorick's skull as Hamlet, and delicately wooing the French princess as Henry. This is where he gets to be funny and subtle and charming, and he's terribly good at all of it. There isn't a moment where Olivier doesn't seem to be giving these roles everything he's got.
But far exceeding either of those previous outings is Olivier's transformation into Richard of Gloucester, one of Shakespeare's great misanthropic bastards. With a fake nose, affected limp, and some good costuming, suddenly he's unrecognizable. And oh, the odious ambition and the twisted jealousy and the seething self-loathing coming off of this man! Sometimes Olivier goes well over the top, but he is so much fun to watch as Richard. It's no wonder that everyone wanted Olivier for villain roles in his later career. "Richard III" was the hardest of his films to get through, but it was worth it for the finale, where all of Richard's bad deeds finally catch up to him on the battlefield, and Olivier gives him a really great death scene.
And now I want to see his King Lear and his Othello and his Shylock. I want to see his Mr. Darcy in the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice," and his Heathcliff in the 1939 "Wuthering Heights." Because now I know what Laurence Olivier is capable of. Now I know what Kenneth Branagh and every other Shakespeare-loving actor out there has been trying to live up to for the last six decades, with varying degrees of success. I've seen better Hamlets. I've seen better Henrys. But there's no question that it was Olivier who set the bar, who was the touchstone and the starting point for so much of Shakespeare on film. That's why he's important. That's why he's remembered.
I'm so glad I finally got to know him.