- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Laurence Olivier, whose birth centennial occurred two days ago, evidently thought of the movies as a lucrative supplement to his theatrical career — and emerging aspirations as a classical Shakespearean actor — until well into his 30s. The idea that he might have a special affinity for transposing Shakespeare to the screen was a late bloomer.

Broadway and Hollywood promptly noticed Mr. Olivier. He had co-starring roles in three pictures made at RKO circa 1931-32. Turner Classic Movies revived two of them earlier this month as part of an all-day Olivier tribute that traced his film work over half a century. The most intriguing of the RKO set, a fashionably amoral romantic comedy titled “Westward Passage,” preserves Mr. Olivier at 24.

Gauche but exceptionally good-looking, he brought a distinctive voice to talking pictures in their formative stage. He was still photogenically and vocally precocious when cast as Orlando in his first Shakespearean feature, “As You Like It,” revived by TCM in a lovely restoration copy. Released in 1936, this eccentric prestige production was filmed in England by the Viennese exile Paul Czinner, who intended it as another flattering showcase for his wife, Elizabeth Bergner, a celebrated actress whose accent and age (about a decade older than Mr. Olivier) made her an indelibly odd choice as the ingenuous heroine, Rosalind.

Then and now, she seemed memorably miscast and outmatched. Mr. Olivier was a far more attractive camera subject — “triumphantly angelic” in the words of movie critic Pauline Kael years later. His haircut, which emphasized curly locks descending over the forehead, even anticipated a heartthrob of a later generation: Tony Curtis, amusingly destined to beguile an Olivier character in “Spartacus.” The most pleasing temperamental aspect of Mr. Olivier’s Orlando is his attentive bemusement in the presence of a dubious tease of a leading lady; the actor gracefully projects a sense of gallantry that dignifies a harebrained love match.

There’s also a suggestive what-if charm in this Olivier performance — it’s as close as we’ll ever get to a hint of how he might have appeared in a legendary production of “Romeo and Juliet” a year earlier while alternating the roles of Mercutio and Romeo with John Gielgud. This association began Mr. Olivier’s systematic preparation for a Shakespearean career, which he envisioned from the outset as a rival approach to the Gielgud style — earthy rather than spiritual, dedicated to the notion of merging Shakespeare with realism.

Although the major Shakespearean movies of the 1930s — Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Warner Bros., Mr. Czinner’s “As You Like It,” and MGM’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer and John Barrymore — had fitful merits, Mr. Olivier evidently discounted the very notion that Shakespeare and the cinema were compatible. “As You Like It,” the inconclusive example he knew at first hand, persuaded him that this line of specialization was foolhardy. Nevertheless, a decade later, it remained for a skeptical Laurence Olivier to elevate Shakespearean adaptation while discovering his own aptitude for film direction.

This self-discovery required the overwhelmingly portentous and patriotic reality of World War II. Mr. Olivier agreed that a movie version of “Henry V” could be a stirring and timely spectacle. He tried to beg off as director, offering the task to both William Wyler and Carol Reed, who had wartime documentary obligations that made acceptance impossible. So, Mr. Olivier directed himself and an exceptionally skillful, diverting cast in what proved an immediate popular and critical triumph as the war was ending in Europe. A uniquely exploitable prestige production, it was exported to the U.S. in 1946.

Mr. Olivier’s Academy Award nomination as best actor in “Henry V” anticipated his winning the Oscar two years later in “Hamlet,” also named best motion picture of 1948. Additional nominations as best actor followed in two subsequent theatrical features based on Shakespearean plays, “Richard III” in 1956 and “Othello” in 1967. Mr. Olivier did not direct the latter, which replicated a National Theatre production of two years earlier, while he was still the institution’s artistic director.

Strictly speaking, there are five Shakespearean “movies” in the Olivier filmography. Two productions made for television — “The Merchant of Venice” and “King Lear” — may be appended, but it’s somewhat easier to regard his performance in “Spartacus” as the tyrannical Roman general Crassus as a more legitimate add-on. It coincided with a famous theatrical performance as Coriolanus. Presumably, there’s a lot of Coriolanus in his Crassus.

Handsome Criterion Collection editions of the three Shakespearean movies directed by Mr. Olivier are available. DVD updates of the wistful “As You Like It” and powerful “Othello” would be welcome, especially the latter because the VHS edition cries out for color correction and a widescreen aspect ratio.

The “Richard III” DVD offers the best single supplement: an hourlong interview between Mr. Olivier and Kenneth Tynan on the latter’s BBC series “Great Acting.” Dating from 1966, this conversation provides an invaluable first-person summary of Mr. Olivier’s career and outlook, including his famous observations, “You try to be unlike somebody else” and, “I do work mostly from the outside in.”

The most satisfying of the Olivier movies remain “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” which reflect his intuitions as a confident Shakespearean and freshly minted movie director at their most inventive and effective. Kenneth Branagh was destined to improve on “Henry V” in certain respects, mainly by restoring scenes that had been sacrificed in the Olivier version. Nevertheless, the evocative cleverness and pictorial charm of the first movie, which begins with an impression of the Globe Theatre in its prime, seem to defy imitation.

In all justice, the Olivier “Hamlet” should be celebrated as an inadvertent film-noir classic. It belongs to the right period and sustains an austerely sinister pictorial design as expertly as any modern-dress crime thriller. It’s also the “Hamlet” whose readings still echo for many of us, making it difficult to “hear” another Hamlet, Polonius or Ophelia without recalling Mr. Olivier. Not every Olivier visual scheme for Shakespeare paid off — “Richard III” goes static on him within the first hour — but he always has spoken the plays with admirable cinematic clarity.

TITLE: “Henry V”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1946, two decades before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter.)

CREDITS: Directed by Laurence Olivier. Screenplay by Alan Dent and Mr. Olivier, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

TITLE: “Hamlet”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1948; adult subject matter, with consistent ominous stylization and occasional graphic violence.)

CREDITS: Directed by Laurence Olivier. Screenplay by Alan Dent and Mr. Olivier, based on Shakespeare’s play.

RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

TITLE:”Richard III”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1956; adult subject matter, with occasional graphic violence.)

CREDITS: Directed by Laurence Olivier. Screenplay by Alan Dent and Mr. Olivier, based on Shakespeare’s play.

RUNNING TIME: 158 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

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