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Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare

The great actor-director's contribution to Shakespeare cinema

Main image of Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare

Laurence Olivier was the cinema's first great Shakespearean artist, and remains one of its foremost practitioners - only Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh can rival him for achievement as both actor and director. His cinema reputation stems from the three films he directed between 1944 and 1955, though his Shakespeare career spanned nearly seven decades (a 1917 school play to his 1983 King Lear) and a few performances have thankfully been preserved.

After turning down the lead in George Cukor's Hollywood Romeo & Juliet in 1936 (the rather older Leslie Howard stepped into the breach), he made his Shakespeare film debut as Orlando in As You Like It, a charming if lightweight production directed by Paul Czinner. Olivier acquitted himself well, but tellingly omits it from his autobiography - probably because it was heavily overshadowed by his then-current reputation as Britain's greatest living Shakespearean stage actor.

This was consolidated with his directorial debut, Henry V (1944), a film that defied expectations both in terms of what could be done with Shakespeare translated into cinematic form, and its box office appeal, in the process creating a film that epitomised Britain at the end of World War II.

He then made a brooding, introspective, considerably darker Hamlet (1948), shot in deep-focus black-and-white. Although less outwardly appealing than Henry V, it became the first British film (indeed, the first non-American film) to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

His final Shakespeare film as director and star was Richard III (1955), a less cinematically adventurous production but one which showcased a performance so definitive that it cast a giant shadow over future attempts. He then planned to film Macbeth with Vivien Leigh, a long-term dream, but the project collapsed when producer Alexander Korda died in 1956.

Olivier spent much of the 1960s setting up the National Theatre, whose main stage was later named after him. His NT production of Othello was filmed by Stuart Burge in 1965, though without any significant attempt at adapting it for the screen. He also spoke the prologue to Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet (1968), his last contribution to Shakespeare cinema.

But he played two further Shakespeare leads for television, in The Merchant of Venice in a production by Jonathan Miller (ATV, 1974) (Shylock being the last Shakespeare part he played on stage), and a memorable 1983 King Lear, made by Granada, in which his own physical frailty underscored an overwhelmingly poignant performance.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of As You Like It (1937)As You Like It (1937)

Britain's first sound Shakespeare feature film

Thumbnail image of Hamlet (1948)Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Henry V (1944)Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier turns Shakespeare into rousing propaganda

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1955)Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

Thumbnail image of King Lear (1983)King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

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Thumbnail image of Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

Actor, Producer, Director