Laurence Olivier: Fine Film Actor, So Shut Up!

Many times during Laurence Olivier's film career, I felt for the guy (yeah, that's right, I just called Lord Laurence Olivier "the guy"). Unlike some of my younger readers (surely I must have some) I was actually around to see and anticipate the latest Laurence Olivier movie at the box office. Okay, by the time I was around for Olivier films he was no longer the star but, still, it's no less true. And when I saw those movies, like Marathon Man, The Seven Percent Solution, The Boys from Brazil, Dracula and, later, his earlier achievements leading up to the current stuff, like Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, Richard III, The Entertainer, Bunny Lake is Missing and Sleuth, I thought he was a fine actor. In fact, I thought he was excellent. But in interview after interview with some pissy theatre historian, arch film critic or jealous thespian, on tv and in print, I kept hearing (and Olivier surely must have, too) that Olivier was only an okay film actor and, alas, the world would never know his real talents because his great stage work was never preserved. I'd hear the snide little self-satisfied stories about how he had to be taught to act in the movies by William Wyler (like Wyler didn't do that with practically every actor!) as if to say, by telling the story, that we all understood poor, dumb Larry just couldn't cut it in the movies without lots of help. Well, here's the thing:

That's all bullshit!

Laurence Olivier was a damn fine actor, on the stage and on the screen, and I'm sick to death of the persistence of that deranged meme that he was really a stage actor and a great one and, thus, by some odd algebra, not very much of a film actor. Look, anyone who has acted knows that if you're really good on stage, chances are pretty overwhelming that you're going to be good on film. Where in the hell do you think 90 percent of tv and film actors have come from in the history of cinema? They've come from school, college, community and professional theatre. Yes, it can sometimes take a film or two for an actor to get the hang of it but it's not a career long crutch. Just recently, in a piece I wrote at TCM, I mentioned how big Jack Albertson played it in the movie version of The Subject was Roses but made sure to also note he was "a great actor in his own right." I mean, okay, he played it big for the film adaptation of a play he'd just done a few hundred performances of but guess what? He was Jack Albertson so he adjusted to the medium pretty damned quickly and so did Olivier.

And for 847th time, can we all understand that big ISN'T BAD! Big acting by a bad actor is bad. Big acting by a good actor is a gift to the audience. So Olivier played it big sometimes, with big accents and big mannerisms and big inflections. So what?! He was a pleasure to watch every time.

When I watch Sleuth, I don't want to see a subtle, under the radar portrayal of conceited, selfish playwright Andrew Wyke. I want that performance BIG because I need to feel in my bones that this guy is an Asshole with a capital "A". And Olivier delivers.

Or how about Szell from Marathon Man? Does that character (and that line - you know the line) go down as one of the great villains in film history if he's played by a schlep who really doesn't seem to know shit about acting in front of a camera?

How about Hamlet, the film version, not the stage version (obviously)? Ever watch Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh or Richard Burton perform the "to be or not to be" soliloquy? They're all available on YouTube and, actually, they're all pretty good but watch the Olivier version first and then notice all of them going out of their way to NOT do it like Olivier did it! Every choice they make makes Olivier's presence felt by default. They know Olivier's the man to beat here and every one of them is playing to his ghost.

Each movie I've mentioned is a movie in which Laurence Olivier excels. I don't think he was good all the time, hence, certain titles I haven't mentioned. But there are few actors who do nail every performance every time. I don't mean to say he was ever bad, just that some of his performances are much better than others, again, like any actor. But consistently calling him out on his film acting feels a bit like trade jealousy. A way of feeling you've one-upped him, cut him down to size.

But you haven't.

You haven't because Laurence Olivier wasn't just a fine stage actor, he was also a fine film actor. The record of that is preserved for posterity and the evidence is incontrovertible. Eventually, the naysayers will die off but the performances will continue to speak for themselves, loudly and boldly. And the message they speak will be clear: "Laurence Olivier was a damn good actor, regardless of the medium."


This post is a part of the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh Blogathon held by Kendra Bean at the magnificently obsessed Viv and Larry.