“Without acting I cannot breathe.”
1.Larry in 1973
2. Dorking, Surrey
3. Young Larry
4. A tad older
5. All Saints
6. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
7. A young successful working actor
8. With Jill Esmond
9. In his first film, “The Temporary Widow”
11. The unbridled fury of Animala .
12. John Gielgud
13. As Henry V
14. Vivien Leigh
15. 1939‘s “Wuthering Heights”
16. Vivian and Larry
17. Larry with step-daughter Suzanne, and mom Vivian, in California in 1950
18. In 1940‘s “Rebecca” with Joan Fontaine
19. As Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”
20. With Vivian in “That Hamilton Woman”
21. In “49th Parallel”
22. Vivian as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's “A Streetcar Named Desire”
23. Larry with Vivian and Orson Wells
24. Tickerage Mill
Today it is my great honor and pleasure to give a great big happy birthday shout out to my favorite actor of all time, Sir Laurence Olivier, who insisted on being called “Larry,” and who would have been 108 years old on this day. Unfortunately he left us 1989. He was 82 years old when he died.
Like many of us, myself included, Larry was born at a very early age as a small, puffy, male infant, and specifically to him, in 1907, in Dorking ( 51° 13' 0" North, 0° 20' 0" West), a long-established market and later railway town in the valley of the Pipp Brook between the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge, approximately 21 miles from the center of London, in Surrey, England.
In 1911 it was economically described as "almost entirely residential and agricultural, with some lime works on the chalk, though not so extensive as those in neighboring parishes, a little brick-making, water-mills (corn) at Pixham Mill, and timber and saw-mills."
He was the youngest of the three children of the Revd Gerard Kerr Olivier (1869–1939) and his wife Agnes Louise, maiden name Crookenden (1871–1920). His older brother Gerard Dacres "Dickie" was born in 1904 and passed away in 1958, and his sister Sybille was born in 1901, and died just three months before Laurence, in April of 1989.
Larry’s great-great-grandfather, Daniel Stephen Olivier, was from a French Huguenot family who fled from France to England around the 17th century, as they were Protestants who were being persecuted by the majority Catholics.
Larry’s father and grandfather held prominent positions in the Anglican church; his mother too came from a family of career clerics.
His dad was strict, and his mom was his comfort in a household that was rigidly ruled by the father. Accordingly, Larry was devastated when Agnes died when he was just 12 years old. Still, it was the elder Gerard, who shared his middle name with his youngest son, who encouraged Larry to pursue acting as a career after witnessing him in some Shakespearean roles at school which displayed his early talent.
And it was Gerard from whom Larry first was influenced in the performance arts. He wrote that his dad knew "when to drop the voice, when to bellow about the perils of hellfire, when to slip in a gag, when suddenly to wax sentimental ... The quick changes of mood and manner absorbed me, and I have never forgotten them."
In 1916 Larry passed the singing examination for admission to the choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street, in central London, which is pretty cool. The percentage of students who can sing their way into a scholarship is actually quite low today.
The ten-year-old Olivier's performance as Brutus in a school production of Julius Caesar in 1917, impressed an audience that included the English actresses Helen Maud Holt (Lady Tree), Sybil Thorndike, and Ellen Terry, who wrote in her diary, "The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor."
From All Saints Larry went on to St Edward's School, in Oxford, where he studied from 1920 to 1924. There he played Puck in the school's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," my favorite Shakespearean play.
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Shakespeare was nothing if not prescient.
He then enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama on a scholarship, and joined the Birmingham Repertory company in 1926.
One of Larry's fellow students at the school was Peggy Ashcroft, who made the observation that he was "rather uncouth in that his sleeves were too short and his hair stood on end but he was intensely lively and great fun."
He rose quickly from small parts to those of leading man, and soon moved to London's West End (an area of Central London containing many of the city's major tourist attractions, shops, businesses, government buildings and entertainment venues including the commercial West End theaters).
While playing the juvenile lead in “Bird in Hand” at the Royalty Theatre in June of 1928, Larry began a relationship with the stage and future film actress, Jill Esmond. In his autobiography Larry later wrote that he was smitten with her, and that her cool indifference to him did nothing but make him want her more. "She would most certainly do excellent well for a wife ... I wasn't likely to do any better at my age and with my undistinguished track-record, so I promptly fell in love with her."
When the play moved to America and was being staged on Broadway, Jill was chosen to join the production, but poor Larry was not.
However, as Layla Baileygates once said in the immortal “Me, Myself, and Irene,” “The heart wants what the heart wants,” and Larry hopped over to New York to stalk... be near her, finding work as an actor. After proposing to her several times, she agreed and the couple were married on July 25th, 1930 at All Saints, Margaret Street.
Within weeks, the couple regretted their marriage. Larry later recorded that the union was "a pretty crass mistake. I insisted on getting married from a pathetic mixture of religious and animal promptings. ... She had admitted to me that she was in love elsewhere and could never love me as completely as I would wish".
They had one son, Tarquin Olivier (born August 21st, 1936).
The Internet Movie Database tells me that Larry began his film career that year, playing “the man” in the short film, “Too Many Crooks,” a crime/comedy, similar I suppose to Ben Stiller’s “The Tower Heist,” or Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in “How to Steal a Million.” There are literally oodles of others.
It was a British production that was filmed in Berlin, and took him 4 nights to complete. He was paid a total of 60 pounds.
“Too Many Cooks,” was about a man who tries to rob his own safe the same night as a group of professionals plan to do the same, hence there were too many crooks, get it?
He also co-starred in 1930 with Lilian Harvey in the full length feature (84 minutes) in the mystery/comedy “The Temporary Widow.”
Larry said he didn’t enjoy working in films, and dismissed the genre as "this anemic little medium which could not stand great acting", but it paid more than the work he had been doing in the theater, and he was newly married.
In 1931 RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures offered Larry a two-film contract at $1,000 a week. He accepted and moved to Hollywood, despite some misgivings. His first film was the drama “Friends and Lovers,” in a supporting role, before RKO loaned him to Fox Studios, way before Rupert Murdoch got his hands on it, for his first film lead as a British journalist in Russia under martial law in “The Yellow Passport,” with Lionel Barrymore, Drew’s granduncle.
Studio executives wanted him to change his name to "Larry Oliver." That didn’t work out.
Larry returned to RKO to complete his contract with the 1932 drama “Westward Passage,” which bombed at the box office.
Things didn’t go as well as he had hoped in the U.S. and Larry returned to in London where he appeared in two British films, “Perfect Understanding” with Gloria Swanson and “No Funny Business" in which his wife also appeared. He was tempted back to Hollywood in 1933 to appear opposite Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina,” but was replaced after two weeks of filming because Greta, the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, wanted to work with her boyfriend instead.
In 1934 Larry’s stage roles included the character Bothwell in Gordon Daviot's “Queen of Scots.” He had a great success playing a thinly disguised version of the American actor John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) in Edna Furber's “Theatre Royal.” He broke his ankle after two months in the production as it was his custom to liven up his performances with athletic/acrobatic stunts.
As a matter of fact what made Sir Olivier's acting technique so refreshing and unique, what made him stand out and made him such a popular and powerful force, what drew me to him, was his ability to change (not to mention his gift of oratory skills). In every role I ever saw him play he was a different person, a different character. Many actors, like Larry’s friend Cary Grant, basically play themselves, or some semblance of themselves, in every film they appear in. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few other actors who employ this “personality based” form of performance. Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Kevin James, Jason Mewes, Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny Devito, Danny Trejo, Robert Downey Jr. (excluding his breakout performance in “Tropic Thunder”), Buster Keaton... Drew, all pretty much play themselves in every movie they appear in. The words and plots are different in each film, but when these actors are cast you can fairly well guarantee what the performance will be like.
I’m not disparaging these performers. They are often very popular, and every once in a while they find a particular role in which they excel and stand out. Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side,” comes to mind.
Other actors do it differently. They are like chameleons. They change with every role. They change their physical appearance or stature (Christian Bale in “The Machinist,” “The Fighter,” or “American Hustle.” Or Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”). They change their speech and affect (Brad Pitt, one of our best and most underrated actors working today despite his unearthly good looks. Michael Fassbender, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Bruno Amato, Jennifer Blaire (No one can resist Animala’s “Rock Dance”), Parker Posey, Benita Robledo, Lynn Collins, Sarah Michelle Prinze, Annette Haven, Peter Sellers, Mariel Booth, Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few of the best, are all veteran masters who have honed their craft throughout the years in order to fit into the characters they portray, rather than overwhelm those characters with their own personalities.
And Lawrence Olivier was one of the best, if not the best. His performances were minutely crafted, and he was known for changing his appearance considerably from role to role. By his own admission, he was addicted to extravagant make-up, and unlike his contemporaries Ralph Richardson (of “Time Bandits” fame... here and here) and John Gielgud (of “Arthur,” fame), he excelled at different voices and accents.
His own description of his technique was "working from the outside in." He said, "I can never act as myself, I have to have a pillow up my jumper, a false nose or a moustache or wig ... I cannot come on looking like me and be someone else."
My favorite American actor is Spencer Tracy, who shared and utilized this chameleon like approach to acting. This is what Larry said about Spencer: “I've learned more about acting from watching Tracy than in any other way.”
John Gielgud staged “Romeo and Juliet” at the New Theatre in 1935, co-starring with Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Larry, which was a major step up in his career. For the first weeks of the run John played Mercutio and Larry played Romeo, after which they changed roles. The production broke all box-office records for the play, running for 189 performances.
The theater critic, lyricist, librettist, playwright, theater manager and researcher, Herbert Farjeon, said this about the two Romeos: “Mr Olivier was about twenty times as much in love with Peggy Ashcroft [as Juliet] as Mr Gielgud is. But Mr Gielgud spoke most of the poetry far better than Mr Olivier ... Yet—I must out with it—the fire of Mr Olivier's passion carried the play along as Mr Gielgud's doesn't quite.
The two men would maintain a lifelong rivalry.
And it was during this production that Larry would meet a young an beautiful actress named Vivien Leigh. The two soon began what is sometimes called an affair.
"I couldn't help myself with Vivien. No man could. I hated myself for cheating on Jill, but then I had cheated before, but this was something different. This wasn't just out of lust. This was love that I really didn't ask for but was drawn into."
Larry was a bit of a philanderer. While his relationship with Leigh continued he conducted an affair with the actress Ann Todd, and their are unsubstantiated reports of several homosexual relationships with various men throughout his life, including the American actor, singer, dancer, and comedian, Danny Kaye.
In 1936 Larry accepted an invitation to join the Old Vic company, which specialized in the plays of Shakespeare. In January of 1937 he took the title role in an uncensored version of “Hamlet,” in which once again his delivery of the verse was unfavorably compared with that of Gielgud, who had played the role on the same stage seven years previously to enormous acclaim.
The Old Vic next produced “Twelfth Night,” then “Henry V.”
He made his first Shakespearean film in 1936, as Orlando in “As You Like It,” and he appeared with Vivien in the historical drama “Fire Over England,” in 1937.
Olivier returned to the Old Vic for a second season in 1938 in productions of “Othello,” and the tragedy “Coriolanus,” after which he would not appear on a London stage for six years.
That year he made the thriller/comedy/romance spy movie, “Q Planes,” with Ralph and Valerie Hobson, about disappearing British aircraft prototypes carrying experimental and secret equipment. Larry got bad reviews compared to Richardson. And late in the year Laurence returned to Hollywood to star in “Wuthering Heights,” along with Merle Oberon and David Niven, and directed by Billie Wyler. The film told half the story of the Emily Brontë novel, and he probably did it mainly for the $50,000 paycheck, similar to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” Although Merle and Laurence apparently detested each other, and often fought between themselves and the director, the film was a box office success ($624,643 1939 dollars equaling $10,508,946.72 in 2014) and went on to win The New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture, and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, Larry’s first nomination. Here’s the trailer.
Larry and Vivian were now engaged, but still married to their respective spouses (Vivian to the lawyer Herbert Leigh Holman, who was 13 years her senior. They had one daughter, Suzanne Farrington (married name), who also became an actress, and who passed away just 83 days ago, on March 1st, 2015, at the age of 81) and going through the process of getting divorced (Wife #1 Jill Esmond named Vivien Leigh --wife #2--as co-respondent in her 1940 divorce from Larry on grounds of adultery).
After returning to London briefly in mid-1939, Larry and Viv returned to the U.S., she to film the final takes for a little movie called “Gone with the Wind,” and he to prepare for Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, the Film Noir psychological thriller/drama ,“Rebecca,” with Joan Fontaine.
The film wound up winning 11 Academy Award nominations, with 2 wins, including one for Outstanding Production, the precursor to the Best Picture Award, which was adopted in 1962. Larry earned his second nomination for Best Actor. Here’s a clip.
He was on a roll.
He followed “Rebecca” with an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” with Keira Knightley... oh, I’m sorry, that was the 2005 version. Larry worked in 1940 with Greer Garson (Larry had wanted to work with Vivian in both “Rebecca” and “Pride and Prejudice,” but producers were a tad weary of putting the two together until their respective divorces were finalized. Here’s a clip of Vivian’s screen test for ”Rebecca”).
The film was adapted to the screen by the novelist Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World,” “Island”) of which he wrote 9 during his life, often in collaboration with other writers, like this one with the playwright Jane Murfin.
The movie was well received by critics; The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised the film as "the most deliciously pert comedy of old manners, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume that we in this corner can remember ever having seen on the screen."
He went on to say, “Greer Garson is Elizabeth—'dear, beautiful Lizzie'—stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one's fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be. Laurence Olivier is Darcy, that's all there is to it—the arrogant, sardonic Darcy whose pride went before a most felicitous fall.”
But the film is on record for having lost $241,000, having earned $1,849,000 on a budget of $1,437,000.
And Larry wasn’t nominated for anything.
He was in a slump.
In January of 1940 Laurence and Jill were granted their divorce.
In February, following another request from Vivian, Herbert also formerly asked for their marriage to be terminated.
Larry and Vivian were married in August of 1940, at the San Ysidro Ranch (a luxury hotel and resort) in Santa Barbara, California, which is apparently covered in oil at present from a broken pipeline.
Larry and Vivian appeared together on Broadway in “Romeo and Juliet,” which didn’t fair well, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times stating, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all." The couple had produced the project and it became a huge financial failure for them.
By this time Europe was the midst of World War II and it wasn’t going well for Britain. Larry wanted to help out and contacted the Minister of Information, a Mr. Cooper who told him to contact the film director Alexander Korda, who had connections with British Intelligence. The result of this contact was the 1941 historical film drama, “That Hamilton Woman," with Vivian in the title role, with Larry as Admiral Horatio Nelson. The movie was produced in the U.S. Here’s the full movie if you have a couple of hours to spare. Go ahead and watch. I don’t mind waiting.
Okay, in July the isolationist group America First Committee (AFC) targeted the film along with three others, as pro war propaganda, which “seemed to be preparing Americans for war.” They called for a boycott on those theaters showing the movie.
The AFC may have had something with their allegation as the film historian Professor Stacey Olster revealed that at the time the film was made, Korda’s New York offices were “supplying cover to MI-5 agents gathering intelligence on both German activities in the United States and isolationist sentiments among makers of American foreign policy.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee accused him of operating an espionage and propaganda center for Britain in the United States, and called on him to testify before them, a fate he escaped only due to the Japanese fateful attack on Pearl Harbor five days previously, and which saved Alexander a whole bunch of work as the attack successfully brought the U.S. into the war.
“That Hamilton Woman,” was the last of the three films Larry and Vivian made together, and their only film as a married couple. The director noticed that the relationship between the couple was strained, with Larry tiring of Vivian’s constant adulation, and she began drinking to excess.
It is said that the film was Winston Churchill's favorite.
After completing filming Larry and Vivian returned to England. Larry wanted to join the Royal Air Force, and had spent the previous year learning to fly, racking up 250 hours before he had left for America. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant and trained as a military pilot in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, but never called into service. Instead he made the propaganda film, “49th Parallel,” which despite the title, no scene in the movie is set at the 49th parallel, which is a reference to the U.S./Canadian border. The only border scene is at Niagara Falls, which is located farther south.
Laurence and Vivian lived in a cottage just outside RAF base Worthy Down, where he was stationed with a training squadron. He spent much of his time taking part in broadcasts and making speeches to build morale, and in 1942 he was invited to make another propaganda film, “The Demi-Paradise,” in which he played a Soviet engineer who helps improve British-Russian relationships. Sounds gripping.
Nazis and pro-German sympathizers thought of Larry as a potent threat to their cause and posed a danger to his life, so much so that the studio owners were concerned enough that Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille both provided support and security to ensure his safety.
In 1943 the Ministry of Information asked Larry to produce a film version of “Henry V,” which he also wound up acting in, and directing, and co-writing the screenplay. His co-producer was the Italian film producer Filippo Del Giudice, who had fled fascist Italy for England in 1933, and who had been interned at the beginning of the war, but was released in order to produce propaganda for the Allied cause.
The film was partly funded by the British government and intended as a morale booster for Britain. It was originally "dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture."
The movie won Larry an Honorary Academy Award for "his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen." It is widely considered the first Shakespearian film to be both artistically and commercially successful.
Larry and Vivian continued to experience problems in their relationship. He wrote in his autobiography, "Confessions of an Actor," that sometime after World War II, his wife announced calmly that she was no longer in love with him, but loved him like a brother. Larry was emotionally devastated.
He would come to learn that her declaration, and subsequent affairs with multiple partners, were the first symptoms of a bipolar disorder which would eventually disrupt her life and career. Laurence later discussed the years of strain they had experienced because of her illness: "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."
They would remain married until 1960, but she was no longer interested in him romantically. Larry began having affairs (including one with Claire Bloom in the 1950s) as Vivian’s attentions wandered.
Still, she once confided that she "would rather have lived a short life with Larry than face a long one without him."
In London in May of 1967 Vivian was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee's “A Delicate Balance” when she suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis of which she had been diagnosed in 1944. She appeared to have recovered after several weeks of rest.
On the night of July 7th, 1967, her companion at the time, actor Jack Merivale left her to perform in a play as actors do occasionally. Upon returning to their Eaton Square home just after midnight he found her in bed asleep. About 30 minutes later, he returned to the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had been attempting to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, they collapsed and she suffocated.
Merivale first contacted her family and the next day, was able to reach Larry, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer in a nearby hospital.
In his autobiography, Laurence described his "grievous anguish" as he immediately traveled to Vivian’s flat to find that Jack had moved her body back onto the bed.
Larry paid his respects, and "stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us,” before helping Merivale make the funeral arrangements. He stayed with her until her body was removed.
On the public announcement of her death, on July 8th, the lights of every theater in central London were extinguished for an hour.
A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with a final tribute read by John Gielgud.
According to the provisions of her will, Vivian was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her summer home, Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex, England.
“In every generation there was a woman who gripped the imagination of the continent. Today is it Vivien Leigh, because of her greatness as an actress, because of her personality and charm and in spite of her good looks.” -Orson Wells
To be continued