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Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

Actor, Producer, Director

Main image of Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)

The second son and third child of a clergyman, Laurence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, on 22 May 1907. He made his stage debut in 1922 and acted in films from the early '30s, but his initial condescension towards the cinema faded only gradually and it was not until 1944 that he directed William Shakespeare's Henry V (co-d. Reginald Beck) for Two Cities.

The film opens in Elizabethan London's open air Globe Theatre, where a performance of Henry V is in progress. This reconstruction of Elizabethan theatre conditions, on and off stage, ends when King Henry V (Olivier) departs for Southampton en route to France to claim the French crown. The camera then takes over and does not return to the Globe until the very end of the film. In France, Henry unexpectedly routs a vastly superior French army at Agincourt and wins the heart of a French princess (Renée Asherson). With a lavish budget for the time, Henry V is beautifully filmed in Technicolor, draws on an excellent cast, and benefits from William Walton's stirring but unobtrusive music. Olivier's central performance is impeccable, while the battle sequences provide a spectacular climax. Rapturously received by critics and at the box office, the film represented a triumph for Olivier and arguably the most striking directorial debut in British cinema history.

After being knighted in 1947, Olivier directed Hamlet (1948), again for Two Cities. He drastically shortened Shakespeare's text but with much less visual action, the film appealed less to audiences than the flamboyant Henry V. Even so, Desmond Dickinson's imaginative monochrome cinematography, which helps create a brooding atmosphere of suppressed tension, is impressive, and Olivier assembles a fine cast and gives a memorable performance himself as Hamlet.

In 1955 Olivier reverted more closely to his Henry V formula in his commercially and critically successful version of Richard III (co-d. Anthony Bushell) for Alexander Korda's London Films. The story of Richard's schemes to seize the English throne before 1483 and his death as King of England two years later at the battle of Bosworth lends itself to Technicolor, supplies ample opportunities for splendid acting by a high quality cast, is not too set-bound and provides a battlefield climax, albeit a disappointing one compared to Henry V. These assets are well buttressed by Otto Heller's cinematography and William Walton's music and, above all, by Olivier's magnetic interpretation of Richard.

Olivier went on to direct only two more films, each in a more modern setting. The Prince and the Showgirl (co-d. Anthony Bushell, 1957) was based upon a Terence Rattigan play in which Olivier had starred with his second wife Vivien Leigh. Marilyn Monroe had bought the film rights with a view to inviting Olivier to be her co-star and director. The story concerns the regent of Carpathia (Olivier), visiting Britain in 1911 for King George V's coronation, who comes to love and then loses an attractive chorus girl (Monroe). The undemanding material was better suited to Monroe's acting style than Olivier's, the two seem ill at ease together on screen and the comedy is tepid. Both contemporaneously and in retrospect the film does nothing for Olivier's directorial reputation.

In 1970, the year he was created a life peer, Olivier directed an adaptation of The Three Sisters, Chekhov's play about a prosperous Tsarist Russian family, the three fatherless daughters of which constantly dream of a better life in Moscow. Despite a good cast, including Olivier himself and his third wife, Joan Plowright, and music by William Walton, the film is worthy but dull, without cinematic vitality. This was his last film before his death at Steyning, West Sussex, on 11 July 1989.

In his review of The Three Sisters for the Guardian on 29 October 1970, Derek Malcolm described Olivier as "no film director". This is unfair: The Three Sisters compares favourably with other screen versions of Chekhov, whose preoccupation with Tsarist upper class frustrations is not easily adaptable to film, and Malcolm's harsh verdict takes too little account of Olivier's immense Shakespearean cinematic achievements. Olivier remained throughout his career a figure of the theatre rather than of the cinema, but his Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III did more to popularise Shakespeare and to bridge the gap between stage and screen than any other Shakespeare adaptations. Though they are derived from plays and are arguably too theatrical at times, all his five films are essentially his own works (his nominal co-directors only arranged his movements in front of the camera) and Olivier's visionary conception of Henry V alone warrants a high place for him among his country's film directors.

Wardle, Irving, 'Laurence Olivier' in Nicholls, C.S. (ed.), The Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 332-5.
BFI National Library microfiches on Laurence Olivier, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, The Prince and the Showgirl and The Three Sisters

James C. Robertson, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Britain's first sound Shakespeare feature film

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Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning Shakespeare adaptation

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Laurence Olivier turns Shakespeare into rousing propaganda

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Star-studded biopic of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene

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

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Derek Jarman interprets Benjamin Britten's oratorio about Wilfred Owen

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A poetic call to arms from Humphrey Jennings

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Lavish, standard-setting adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel

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Robert Powell plays Jesus Christ in Franco Zeffirelli's famous miniseries

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Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

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Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

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John Mortimer's fine play about his relationship with his blind father

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