A low bow today to Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989). Often regarded as the greatest actor of the twentieth century, the modern equivalent of a Kean or a Tree, so great was his fame that I first knew him only as a name, invariably spoken with reverence, long before I ever saw any of his performances. Unlike, say, Orson Welles, he wasn’t constantly on television, and none of the movies he made crossed my path (and if they had, none were of any interest to a child, or at any rate, this child.)
If you have been reading this series, or indeed any of my writing at all, you must know that this quality called “ham” I consider more often than not to be a virtue rather than a vice. But it can be a vice, a line of excess can be crossed even according to my lights, and the best of them have been known to frequently cross it, else they wouldn’t be among the best. Thus it was, by a curious quirk in timing that I discovered Good Larry and Bad Larry simultaneously.
I hope to God you know what I mean by Good Larry. While I wasn’t a particularly brilliant child, I was most definitely a precocious and ravenously curious teenager. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, either via cable tv or videotape rental, I know I looked at Wuthering Heights (1939) and Olivier’s Shakespeare trilogy, Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955) as well as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Thus I had some idea of the Olivier of genius, the sonorous voice, the facility with shape-shifting and external transformation, and above all the ability he had to connect his words to his thoughts so that the words he uttered seemed to be originating from his own brain. I tell you, it is a rare actor who can bring this quality to Shakespeare — I watch most actors (and I mean MOST, 85% or something) and cry BULLSHIT. Most actors have no idea what they’re saying, fake it, and plow through. Among contemporaries, Kenneth Branagh absolutely has that gift I attribute to Olivier: I heard and understood every single line he spoke in Henry V, for example. At the moment I can’t think of anyone else. The other aspect of Olivier’s significance seems mostly to have manifested itself mainly on the stage so unfortunately we can only read about it, and that is his athleticism, his ability to take physical risks. It’s a shame that his skills in this area weren’t exploited intelligently on the screen. From what I gather he was fully physically qualified to have been every bit the swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn were, and audiences have been known to like that.
At any rate, at the same time as I was discovering Good Larry in decades-old movies, I was also seeing Bad Larry in first run contemporary films at the cinema. Olivier didn’t stoop to wine commercials and The Merv Griffin Show as Welles did, but he did seem to take just about whatever unworthy, hokey role offered him a paycheck. The descent to my mind starts with Marathon Man (1976), in which he plays an evil Nazi dentist. Though he would occasionally still take parts worthy of him, it seemed like his career was characterized by showy, campy turns usually involving foreign accents. He followed up his Nazi with two conspicuous Jews in The Boys from Brazil (1979) and The Jazz Singer (1980) (They don’t have Jewish actors in Hollywood?), was rather a terrible Frenchman (in a beret and ascot, no less) in A Little Romance (1979), and played the Dutch Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula (1979). His other roles tended to be prestige walk-ons, usually as army generals and admirals, and as the Great God Zeus in Clash of the Titans (1980). Now, the roots of this sort of thing go way back. His Jed Harris-inspired Richard III portrayal, with its crazy wig and nose putty comes awfully close to hokum — but Shakespeare benefits from BIG. And it helps if you are on the same page as everyone else in the movie. At any rate, as compared with his stage career, Olivier’s film record (like those of so many others, Brando’s, Barrymore’s, De Niro’s) seems to have come dangerously close to adulterating a sterling reputation. Don’t tell me “That’s the film business.” Seems to me Daniel Day-Lewis has held on to his reputation pretty well. You can choose not to lower yourself, especially when you are capable of doing what Olivier could do.