- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2007

At one point in his mem- oirs, “Confessions of an Actor,” published in 1982, Laurence Olivier reflected that his profession generated far more toil than pleasure. “Except for playing light comedy to an enraptured audience,” he wrote, “acting is not an enjoyable craft. It is interesting, certainly, and absorbing almost to a point of mania in its difficulties and problems, but not enjoyable. The intensely suffering characters, which we describe as the Punishing Roles — Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Titus, Oedipus — are not there to be enjoyed any more than a marathon is. … [They seem] an endurance test when you are in action, but [leave] an aching void in times of rest; perhaps an ox misses his yoke when it is removed from him.”

Born a century ago this month, knighted at the age of 40 and made a life peer (Lord Olivier of Brighton) at the age of 63, Sir Laurence remained steadily yoked to acting, directing or acting-managing obligations throughout an extended career that ultimately included about 120 plays, about 60 movies and about 30 television projects, many of those film productions.

His professional theater career began in 1925, when he was 18, and concluded about 60 years later. The Olivier movie credits extend from the end of the 1920s to the end of the 1980s, when he had a fleeting role in “War Requiem,” released in 1989, the year of his death. His cinematic ghost was invoked a few years ago, when the adventure melodrama “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” was permitted to borrow images of Mr. Olivier from yesteryear to portray a shadowy villain.

The first two movies he directed, “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” were prestige productions of the 1940s that created an indelible association with Shakespearean cinema, but only five of his theatrical works and a trio of TV films were derived from Shakespeare’s plays. A vast amount of the Olivier filmography incorporates roles of another kind, including literary characters as familiar as Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy, Professor Moriarty, George Hurstwood and Lord Marchmain to historical figures that range from Adm. Nelson to Gen. MacArthur. During a flurry of character roles in the latter half of the 1970s, Mr. Olivier had the peculiar distinction of playing a facsimile of a notorious Nazi, Dr. Josef Mengele, in one Hollywood thriller, “Marathon Man,” and then a facsimile of an esteemed Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, in another, “The Boys from Brazil.”

Given a fundamental loyalty to the English stage from the outset and classical theater while still in his early 30s, it’s doubtful that Sir Laurence could ever have been permanently susceptible to Hollywood. But he was certainly an object of curiosity and desire as soon as talking pictures took hold. Leading roles in “Journey’s End” and “Beau Geste” in London brought him to the attention of both Broadway and Hollywood producers. His presence in the RKO romantic comedy “Westward Passage,” circa 1932, playing a scapegrace who twice seduces Ann Harding — the second time after she’s respectably married — is self-evidently promising. Attractive to both eye and ear, he seems to require only experience and polish to become a decisive movie asset. When agitated, something goes haywire with his technique, causing an excess of arm-flapping and vocal stress.

The disconcerting herky-jerky traits from “Westward Passage” seem to have been subdued by the time he appears as a swashbuckler or romantic lead in British movies of the middle 1930s such as “Fire Over England” and “As You Like It.” He attributed final mastery of film acting technique to the demands of William Wyler, who directed him as Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” (1939) and kept insisting on less demonstrative or overwrought expression in a role that certainly accentuates the tempestuous and morbid. It’s apparent that smoldering restraint becomes him. The cloudiness of his temperament and beauty of his voice are more eloquent than explicit flare-ups or breakdowns.

This second sojourn to Hollywood, at the end of 1930s, confirmed Mr. Olivier as both a glamorous and stellar attraction. His triumph in “Wuthering Heights” coincided with the more spectacular triumph of his consort, Vivien Leigh, in “Gone With the Wind.”

Curiously, Mr. Wyler had offered Miss Leigh the role of Isabella in “Wuthering Heights.” In fact, there was a remote possibility that the Olivier-Leigh romance would be commemorated in four consecutive movies during 1939-1940. Miss Leigh turned down “Wuthering Heights” because “Gone With the Wind” took precedence. She wanted the heroine’s role in “Rebecca” opposite Mr. Olivier, but it went to Joan Fontaine — very sensibly so, if one compares their screen tests, now preserved in the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of that deluxe mystery classic.

Miss Leigh also coveted the role of Elizabeth Bennet in MGM’s “Pride and Prejudice,” a delightful adaptation that co-stars Greer Garson and Mr. Olivier. There was a consolation project, released in 1941: “Lady Hamilton,” or “That Hamilton Woman,” a made-in-Hollywood British production that allowed the contemporary lovers to impersonate the historical match of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson.

“Henry V” and “Hamlet” overshadowed two admirable Olivier performances of the early 1950s that still remain underrated: his self-destructive Hurstwood in William Wyler’s “Carrie” and a cheerful, tuneful Macheath in “The Beggar’s Opera.” Another Olivier flurry at the end of the decade produced his witty cameo as Gen. Burgoyne in “The Devil’s Disciple,” a re-enactment of his theatrical triumph as music-hall sleaze Archie Rice in “The Entertainer” and the bisexual Roman tyrant of “Spartacus.”

Theatrical commitments, particularly to the new National Theatre in London, dominated the Olivier workload during the 1960s and early 1970s, but they didn’t preclude commanding film performances at reassuring intervals. The adroit police inspector in “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965), is the most satisfying and sympathetic character in the Olivier repertoire in many respects — a rare “normal” paragon. His crazed Mahdi in “Khartoum” a year later probably merits a fresh look, courtesy of reborn Islamist fanaticism.

The film version of a National Theatre “Othello,” released here in 1967, closed out his major Shakespearean films, preserving an acclaimed performance that evidently weathered a late-blooming but prolonged bout of stage fright, recalled in detail in “Confessions of an Actor.”

With and without the Bard, the Olivier filmography is a considerable treasure, with 15 to 20 titles that are securely lodged in the classic or semi-classic echelon and as many more that repay nostalgic or idle curiosity. No one else compares as the all-purpose, multi-media, English-speaking actor of the 20th century.

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