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Laurence Olivier--a Life Realized

October 27, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

Hollywood's reaction to a RKO contract player named Laurence Olivier back in 1931 was that the position had already been filled by Ronald Colman. Olivier moped around town for two years, even doing a play ("The Rats of Norway") at the Hollywood Playhouse. Then he went back to London, to become the greatest actor of the century.

Was Hollywood wrong? Not in Sir Laurence's opinion. "I was a twerp," he says of his early film self. Watching samples of those early talkies on the first part of "Laurence Olivier: A Life"--the second part airs at 9 p.m. Friday on KCET, Channel 28--the viewer tends to agree. One can see why Greta Garbo decided that Olivier wouldn't do as her leading man in "Camille." Too harmless.

Ten years later Olivier was back in Hollywood, not only a movie star himself, but the husband of a star, Vivien Leigh. Then he went back to England for war service and for the glorious film of "Henry V," not only starring Laurence Olivier, but directed by Laurence Olivier.

That's where Friday's episode ended. Next week we'll see the rest of the Olivier story. First, the astonishingly productive period from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, when every part that Olivier touched seemed to turn to gold--Richard III, Oedipus, Hamlet, Archie Rice in "The Entertainer." Not so his private life. The marriage with Miss Leigh collapses. He marries his co-star in "The Entertainer," Joan Plowright. He begins a second family.

Los Angeles Times Sunday November 3, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
MISLEADING MAN: Dan Sullivan wrote that Greta Garbo nixed Laurence Olivier for the leading role opposite her in "Camille" in his Olivier article Oct. 27, but Thom Rhodes of Los Angeles says Garbo shot down Olivier in "Queen Christina" (1933)--the reason supposedly to give her old pal John Gilbert a chance, not because she distrusted the future Sir Larry's acting abilities.

In the '60s, Olivier takes on the leadership of the new National Theatre of Great Britain. After spending all day at his desk, he goes on stage to play "Othello" or the Captain in "Dance of Death" or, for fun, Tattle in "Love for Love." Eventually he starts to blank out on stage. Then his health breaks--"a sort of general uproar in the cells," as Plowright puts it.

The keen old gentleman answering interviewer Melvyn Bragg's questions is obviously not as hale as the actor who once jumped 20 feet from a tree in "Henry V" in order to show the extras how to do it--spraining his ankle in the bargain. But he is still Laurence Olivier. When Bragg wants to film a rehearsal of his TV "King Lear," his face ices over. "You have to pay money to see that," he says. When he tells how Noel Coward bullied him out of giggling on stage, it is clear that Noel Coward played for keeps. So, still, does Olivier.

Given his enormous will power, Olivier's "performance" on this documentary isn't likely to be his last one. If film and TV come to be too much for him, there's always radio. He also owes the public a book about his craft, which he didn't much explore in his recently published autobiography, "Confessions of an Actor."

But Bragg's documentary does provide a useful summing-up of the Olivier career so far. Its range is awesome--even, I should think, to Olivier, looking back. Franco Zeffirelli once said that his "Othello" was an anthology of everything that had been discovered about acting over the last 300 years. It would be folly for a young actor to attempt to imitate Olivier. Yet there are lessons in his career.

For one thing, it gives the lie to the idea that there's necessarily something passive about the actor's life. As a very young actor, Olivier made the rounds like everyone else. But as early as the mid-1930s, he was using some of that lovely Hollywood and West End money to present his own productions, in the old tradition of the actor-manager.

Rather than waiting for the next part, he engineered the next part. In doing so, he came to learn as much about the business end of theater--and, later, of movies--as any producer. Which meant that he couldn't be bamboozled by producers. He knew what you did for the glory of the theater, and what you did for money, and where the line was.

In a perfect world, artists wouldn't have to provide their own support systems. Olivier, with his Anglo-Catholic belief in original sin, knew it wasn't a perfect world. At that, he made it a little less imperfect by pushing the National Theatre into existence, the repertory theater that England had been talking about for 100 years.

The lesson here isn't that every actor can change the world. But he can, perhaps, take the reins of his own career rather than lying supine before the system. If Olivier had stayed in Hollywood after '32, he might still be waiting for the phone to ring. If he had stayed in Hollywood after 1941, he might be doing cameos on "Dynasty."

Yet this wasn't a life dedicated to shrewd career moves. If it had been, Olivier wouldn't have gone home to England just as the really big Hollywood money was rolling in with "Rebecca." He simply had to help his country win the war, even if all they let him do was tow training planes around. They also sent him around the country making speeches, and Bragg has unearthed a vintage black-and-white newsreel where Olivier, in uniform, seems almost ready to explode with Churchillian bombast.

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