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  • Laurence Olivier’s Letters to Young Actors
  • KrisSpeer SomervilleMorgan

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Figure 1.

Laurence Olivier in Costume at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre © Pierre Vauthey/CORBIS SYGMA

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Laurence Olivier never wanted to be a matinee idol or a leading man who played only romantic heroes. Yet after back-to-back performances in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice in 1939–1940, he was sought after by producers and directors, celebrity magazines and ardent fans. His early roles were classic literary characters. A New York Times reviewer called his portrayal of Heathcliff a case of "a player physically and emotionally ordained for a role." He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for both Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. Hollywood was sending a rare message: "We want more."

But to remain a Hollywood star, he would have had play to type, and for the moment he had had enough of being the dashing lead in American films. He returned to the London stage and the work that he loved. The theater allowed him to enjoy a variety of roles: he performed Hamlet, Sir Toby Belch and Henry V in the single season of 1937. Over the next few years he played in Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy and Shakespeare. Hollywood had typecast him as a heroic lead, but stage acting allowed him to explore a broader range of acting experience, including portraying unlikable, troubled personalities. Olivier, still shy, socially awkward and unaware of his innate charm and attractiveness, also needed a place where he could feel safe. Strangely, the stage gave him a sense of [End Page 122] control. He often remarked that he was most himself when he was pretending to be another.

"I like to appear as a chameleon," he said. "So all my career I've attempted to disguise myself." Through makeup, gesture and costume he was able to make himself nearly unrecognizable, and throughout his career he took almost childish enjoyment in surprising audiences with his appearance. "My God, is that him?" was the sort of comment he loved hearing in a hushed theater. He felt his transformation was a success if he had been onstage for more than a few minutes before being noticed as the actor the audience had come to see.

Until 1937, Olivier had never played the lead in Macbeth, a role he coveted. When he was finally cast as the Scottish king in Michel Saint-Denis's production at the Old Vic, his makeup was so overdone that on opening night, his future wife Vivien Leigh remarked, "You hear Macbeth's first line, then Larry's makeup comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on." Of his maquillage, Olivier later said that his slanted eyes, putty chin, forehead and cheekbones and thick eyebrows over a yellowish pallor had probably been too much. His approach to acting was to work from exterior details—voice, costume and makeup—toward the interior character. He considered his depiction of the ambitious soldier superficial. "I 'made up' to play Macbeth instead of letting Macbeth play through me. I had everything outwardly and not enough inwardly," he confessed. Yet his wildly theatrical makeup and performance entertained audiences. The play broke box-office records.

Olivier's love of elaborate disguises and his practical approach to acting were already evident when he was a seventeen-year-old student at the Central School of Speech and Drama. One of his first performances was as Caliban in The Tempest, and he took seriously Shakespeare's description of his character as "a freckled whelp, hag-born." The young Olivier spirit-gummed plaster carbuncles to his face and covered himself in green slime. He horrified the girls and delighted the boys, exactly the reactions he desired.

Laurence Kerr Olivier was born May 22, 1907, in Dorking, Surrey. His father, Gerard Olivier, was a High Anglican clergyman and treated the last of his three children as a nuisance. Larry was one more mouth to feed on a meager stipend. His mother, Agnes, made up for her husband's severity toward her youngest by lavishing him with attention; she added charm and levity to an otherwise...


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