Olivier, Laurence

Olivier, Laurence
   The actor and director was born on May 22, 1907, in Dorkey, Surrey, England. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he took up acting while at St. Edward’s School in Oxford. He was a member of the Birmingham Repertory Company from 1926 to 1928, and made his debut on Broadway in 1929. He first appeared on the English screen in Too Many Crooks (1930), and made his first Hollywood movie, The Yellow Ticket, the following year. He soon returned to Britain, where he made a number of unremarkable movies. Indeed, he did not become a star until he returned to Hollywood to play the morose Heathcliff in William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1939), followed by his role as Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower with a guilty secret, in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940). After serving in the air force of the Royal Navy during World War II, he made the first of the three Shakespeare films that he both directed and starred in, Henry V (1944), which won him a Special Academy Award. After being knighted in 1947, he directed and starred in Hamlet (1948), winning Oscars as both best director and best actor. Richard III, which he also directed and acted in, followed in 1955. KIRK DOUGLAS later sought him to appear in Spartacus.
   Kirk Douglas had begun production on Spartacus (1960), of which he was executive producer as well as star, with Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur) in the director’s chair. Because of his artistic differences with Douglas, Mann left the picture after two weeks of shooting. Mann reportedly believed that Douglas was using his status as executive producer to interfere in the direction of the picture. Furthermore, Douglas seemed to think that Mann was too chummy with the English actors that Douglas had cast in the movie. Douglas’s idea was to employ British actors Laurence Olivier, CHARLES LAUGHTON, and PETER USTINOV to play the Roman patricians and Americans like himself and TONY CURTIS to enact the slaves. The polished voices of the English actors would make a neat contrast with the more pedestrian voices of the Americans in the cast and neatly reflect the class barrier between the two types of characters being portrayed. Douglas did not carry through this concept of casting with consistency, however, since the British JEAN SIMMONS plays a slave girl and the American John Gavin is Julius Caesar. But by and large Douglas’s international casting works well in the picture.
   At any rate, Olivier and the other British actors apparently felt that Douglas was more of a movie star than a seasoned actor; furthermore, they found him abrasive. In particular, Douglas’s first meeting with Olivier had not been pleasant. When he met with Olivier to offer him the role of General Crassus, Olivier countered that he preferred to play Spartacus, as well as to direct the picture himself. Olivier eventually gave up the notion of directing the film and playing the title role; his time on the film was limited by the fact that he was committed to playing the lead in Coriolanus at Stratford-upon-Avon, and he could not the invest the time needed to direct the picture or play the longer role of Spartacus. So he settled for a second lead as Crassus. Nevertheless, Douglas never quite got over the fact that Olivier had suggested that he could have played Spartacus better than Douglas, while directing the picture in the bargain. In the wake of his differences with Mann, Douglas was more than happy to replace him with STANLEY KUBRICK, with whom he had made the critically acclaimed PATHS OF GLORY in 1957. If the British actors were condescending toward Douglas, the latter decided to treat Kubrick in a similar manner, just to show everyone who was boss on the picture. Consequently, Douglas did not have the same rapport with Kubrick on Spartacus as they had while shooting Paths of Glory, where Douglas was star but not producer. Douglas’s subsequent references to Kubrick’s contribution to Spartacus smacked of condescension. He is quoted in Gene Phillips’s book on Kubrick as recalling Kubrick’s first day on the Spartacus set with Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Jean Simmons all present. Said Douglas: “It was a funny scene. Here was Kubrick with his wide eyes and pants hiked up looking like a kid of seventeen. [Kubrick was actually 30. ] You should have seen the look on their faces. It was as if they were asking, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’” Douglas’s anecdote seems hardly fair in retrospect, especially since he had enough confidence in his young director at the time to entrust him with the job of steering a $12 million production with a cast of 10,000 extras.
   Still, at first Kubrick did not get on with the British actors as well as Anthony Mann had. Admittedly, the director who walked off the picture was considerably older and more experienced than the director—whom one member of the Spartacus unit termed “just a kid from the Bronx”—who replaced him. Christine Kubrick told Peter Bogdanovich that Olivier and the other distinguished British actors “treated him, because he was so young, with a certain arrogance. ”
   VINCENT LOBRUTTO quotes Peter Ustinov as describing an early rehearsal in which Olivier would make suggestions on how his fellow actors should read their lines, while ignoring Kubrick—thereby giving credence to Douglas’s statement that Olivier had wanted to direct the film himself in the first place. After Charles Laughton read a lengthy speech, Olivier commented,“No, Charles, that speech should be read thus”; he then offered to read the speech for Laughton. When he had finished, Laughton snapped, “If I only understood it a little bit before, I understand it not at all now. ”
   Olivier always stated publicly that he and Laughton got along splendidly; but Peter Ustinov records in his autobiography that there were displays of temperament and some squabbles on the set, like the incident just described.
   Having to remind Olivier and his compatriots who was directing the movie made Kubrick somewhat paranoid, as Arliss Howard, who appeared in FULL METAL JACKET, told Peter Bogdanovich. Howard remembered Kubrick telling him that “Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton were always muttering,” and he was sure they were talking about him. But he discovered when he snuck up behind them one day that they were actually rehearsing their lines. Kubrick commented, “This is something American actors don’t do at all; they do not learn text. ” Olivier and the other Brits never came on the set not knowing their lines, while some of the Americans in the cast did.
   As time went on, Kubrick began to get on better with Olivier and the other English members of the cast. Like Kubrick, they believed there was something to be said for shooting in the insulated atmosphere of the studio, rather than on location. “I think that much too much has been made of making films on location,” Kubrick wrote after finishing Spartacus. “It does help when the atmosphere, circumstances, and locale are the chief thing supposed to come across” in an action scene; thus Kubrick shot the battle scenes on location in Spain. But working in the “almost classical simplicity of a film studio, where everything is inky darkness and the lights are coming from an expected place and it is quiet, . . . provides the actor with much better concentration and the ability to use his full resources. ” It is much more congenial for filming dramatic sequences.
   “When Spartacus was being made, I discussed this point with Olivier and Ustinov, and they both said that they felt that their powers were just drifting off into space when they were working out of doors. Their minds weren’t as sharp and their concentration seemed to evaporate. They preferred that kind of focusing-in that happens in a studio with the lights pointing at them and the sets around them. ” Spartacus opens with a narrator who creates the historical context of the film for the audience: "In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world. Yet, even at the zenith of her power, Rome lay stricken with the disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for events to bring it forth. At that time a slave woman added to her master’s wealth by giving birth to a son named Spartacus, a proud, rebellious boy. He lived out his youth and young manhood dreaming of the death of slavery. It was two thousand years before it finally would die. " The film will be half over before further reference is made to the age of the dictator, which would be embodied in General Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier).
   After the film gets underway, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is being trained in the gladiator school run by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, in an Academy Award–winning performance). Crassus arrives with three companions: Helena, a Roman matron (Nina Foch); Claudia, a younger woman (Joanna Barnes); and Claudia’s fiancé Glabrus (John Dahl), who is also Crassus’s protégé. The general orders a gladiatorial match “to the death,” as Helena adds pointedly. Crassus pulls a veil from the bust of his archenemy in the Senate, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), which Batiatus, the host, had diplomatically covered. “How far do I have to go to escape from that face?” Crassus laughs.
   When Spartacus and his best friend Draba (Woodie Strode) take to the field, the Ethiopian Drabs lunges at his opponent with a trident. Draba, having thrown Spartacus to the ground, turns his eyes pleadingly toward the guests of honor. Helena jabs her thumb downward. Draba, enraged, refuses to acknowledge the signal for him to kill Spartacus. Instead, he pulls the triple-pointed spear away from his friend’s throat and hurls it toward the quartet on the balcony. As he climbs up the wall toward Crassus, a guard spears him in the back and his blood spatters across Crassus’s immaculate white boots. Crassus finishes the job by slashing his neck tendons with a dagger and Draba’s body slides into the dust. Crassus’s action instantly establishes his ruthless character. Enraged by the cruelty that he and his fellow slaves must endure in the gladiator school, Spartacus soon ignites a revolt against their Roman oppressors. Now the leader of an impromptu insurrection, Spartacus and the other gladiators break out of the school, and he continues to recruit more slaves for his army as he and his band roam the countryside-including the slave girl Varinia (Jean Simmons), who proves a kindred spirit for Spartacus. They eventually have a son.
   Glabrus is dispatched to put down the revolution of slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus becomes enamored with Antoninus (Tony Curtis), one of his slaves. Historians record that Roman generals were known to have a taste for both sexes, and Crassus is no exception. Indeed, Crassus attempts to seduce Antoninus, but the slave escapes from Crassus’s villa and joins Spartacus’s army. (See HOMOSEXUAL SUBTEXTS. ) An individual who was on the set of Spartacus (and who spoke on condition of anonymity) declares that it was an open secret in acting circles that Olivier was bisexual. As a matter of fact, Olivier made a joke about the parallel between Crassus and himself:“He would cross his legs, pull down his tunic, and say coquettishly, ‘A girl must keep her skirt down. ’ He also clowned around with a handsome young extra, according to this member of the unit, who concluded: “Here was the greatest actor in the world, making absolutely no pretense at all, not masking the fact in the least that he was bisexual. ” As the plot unfolds, Spartacus and his men make surprise attacks on the Roman camp by night and the ineffectual Glabrus is quickly brought to his knees. Spartacus enjoins him to go back to the Senate:“ Tell them we want our freedom. We hate Rome and mean to leave her. ”
   Standing now in the Senate, encircled by its members, Glabrus delivers Spartacus’s ultimatum. He is forced to admit to Crassus, his mentor, that he failed to take the usual precautions to safeguard his campsite against a surprise attack. “After all,” he mumbles with manifest embarrassment, “they were only slaves. ” “Crassus sponsored the young man,” Gracchus, who has been Crassus’s political enemy in the Senate for some time, notes smugly. “Let him name the punishment. ”“The punishment of banishment is known to all,” the exasperated Crassus rejoins. “And I will not dissociate myself from his disgrace. I shall retire to private life. ”
   Gracchus, like Crassus a corrupt politician, already divines Crassus’s long-term strategy. The general wants to bide his time until the threat of Spartacus grows to the point that the Senate will give him dictatorial powers to end the slave revolt. “I won’t take the dictatorship of Crassus,” Gracchus shouts to the assembly. “That is what he is out for and that is why he’ll be back. ” As the narrator told us in the film’s spoken prologue, “The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for events to bring it forth. ”
   Crassus learns that Gracchus has made a pact with some Cilician pirates to transport Spartacus and his ever-growing family of slaves out of Italy, as soon as Spartacus’s army can fight its way to the sea. If the plan works there will no need for the Senate to grant Crassus dictatorial powers to rid Rome of the slave army. But Spartacus is later informed that the Cilician pirates have set sail without him and his army. Crassus, it seems, has outbid Gracchus, and bribed the mercenary pirates to depart ahead of schedule. His jaw set, Spartacus says, “Crassus is inviting us to march on Rome so he can confront us and become the savior of the city; that would be his final victory over the Senate. That is why he wants to meet us. ” Spartacus goes out to address the slaves, and Kubrick intercuts his speech with Crassus’s oration to the Senate and the people of Rome, recalling the manner in which Shakespeare in his history plays has opposing generals addressing their respective troops in parallel fashion before a major battle. Spartacus tells his people, dressed in their ragged, weatherworn garments,“We’ve traveled a long way together. Now we must fight again. Maybe there is no peace in this world for anyone. As long as we live we must stay true to ourselves. We are brothers and free. We march tomorrow. ”
   Crassus, for his part, stands before a seemingly endless formation of soldiers, all gleaming helmets and spears. As Crassus, Olivier speaks in a clipped, haughty tone very different from that employed by Douglas as Spartacus, which is calm and affectionate. “I have been elected commander in chief of the armies of the Senate and the people of Rome,” Crassus declaims. “I promise a new Italy and a new empire. And I promise you the body of Spartacus. I have sworn. " When it came to giving forceful, declamatory orations, Olivier was without peer. Crassus’s superior forces inevitably crush Spartacus’s makeshift army; afterward, Crassus futilely searches for Spartacus’s corpse, to make good his promise to the Senate. As the slaves who have been taken prisoner file by him on their way to crucifixion, the victorious general spies Antoninus and Spartacus walking side by side. “Hold this man to the end,” he says, staring vindictively at his former body servant, “and that one too,” he adds, motioning toward Spartacus. Crassus apparently recognizes Spartacus from the time that Spartacus fought before him in the gladiator’s school.
   Kubrick’s chief complaint about working on Spartacus was that Douglas would not accept his suggestions about improving the script, which, he felt, was saddled with a weak plot. In general, the story line seems to hold up well, however, until the end of the film, where the story begins to slow down instead of gaining momentum. Perhaps it is these later scenes that the director had in mind when criticizing DALTON TRUMBO’s screenplay. Surely no other Kubrick film grinds to a halt the way Spartacus does.
   The following scene, which involves Olivier as Crassus, is the worst offender in the whole movie, in terms of being awkward, overlong, and in the end unnecessary; for it tells the viewer little that has not already been established with more taste. In it Crassus tries to seduce Varinia with jewels and finery, finally threatening to kill her child if she does not acquiesce. Varinia says what the filmgoer is already thinking: that threats are hardly calculated to win Varinia’s love. When Crassus asks her about Spartacus, she says in so many words what had been more skillfully implied in the foregoing scenes in which Crassus arranged to take custody of Varinia and the child, in the wake of Spartacus’s defeat. “You are afraid of him,” she taunts. “That’s why you want his wife, to soothe your fear by having something that he had. When you’re so afraid, nothing can help you. We shall win. ”
   As Spartacus and Antoninus sit shackled together, awaiting their turn to die, Crassus unveils his insidious plan to torture the two slaves in a way that they had not suspected. The sadistic streak Crassus displayed when he cut Draba’s throat comes to the fore’ once again. Crassus has them unchained and commands them to fight to the death before him; the victor is to be crucified. “We will test this myth of slave brotherhood,” he says. Once more Spartacus has to face a friend in a deadly encounter as he did with Draba at the school.
   “Don’t give Crassus the pleasure of a contest,” Spartacus whispers to his companion. “Lower your guard and I’ll kill you. It is my last order. ”Antoninus grimly refuses to obey Spartacus’s last command. He is determined not to allow Crassus to crucify Spartacus if he can help it. But Spartacus overpowers him, murmuring, “Forgive me,” as he plunges his dagger into his friend.
   Spartacus is ultimately defeated by the superior forces of Crassus, but the might of the Roman empire is already weakening from within, as evidenced by the skulduggery that generals and senators alike practice throughout the picture in an effort to use the crisis that Spartacus has precipitated to their own political advantage. Now that the age of the dictator has arrived, as the film’s prologue foretold that it would, the Romans have in effect enslaved them-selves to Crassus, in exchange for his delivering them from Spartacus.
   Peter Ustinov writes in his autobiography that he admired Olivier: “So utterly controlled, immaculately rehearsed; playing opposite him was more in the spirit of a fencing match. ” In fact, Olivier’s performance was singled out in the notices of the movie as masterful. After Spartacus was acknowledged by critics as one of the better spear-and-sandal spectacles, Kubrick asked Olivier to play Humbert Humbert, a middleaged professor who is obsessed with a preteen girl in LOLITA, and the actor agreed. But Olivier’s agent broke the deal, reasoning that Olivier could not be associated with such a film, as it would tarnish his image. Instead, Olivier played a down-at-the-heels vaudevillian in both the stage and screen versions of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, with the 1960 film directed by Tony Richardson.
   Olivier became director of Britain’s National Theater Company in 1963, but continued to appear on both stage and screen. He was granted a peerage in 1970, and became a member of the House of Lords. He was stricken with a crippling muscular disease, which precluded further stage appearances, but he continued in movies. In 1975 the London theater’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards was named the Olivier Awards. In 1979 a Special Academy Award was bestowed on him at the Oscar ceremonies for his lifetime achievement in films. Laurence Olivier was married three times, each time to an actress: Jill Esmond (1930-1940), Vivien Leigh (1940-1960), and Joan Plowright, his widow (1960-1989). He continued to appear in pictures in the 1970s and 1980s because he wished to provide for the growing children from his third marriage. Among his better roles in his later years was the Nazi war criminal hiding out in New York City in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976)—his first Hollywood film since Spartacus. His last film appearance was in Wild Geese II (1985), about the Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess.
   Perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put it best when they described his career at the time of his honorary Oscar: he was lauded for “the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime contribution to the art of the film. ”
   ■ Bogdanovich, Peter, “What They Say about Stanley Kubrick,” New York Times Magazine, July 4, 1999, pp. 18–25, 40, 47–48;
   ■ Kubrick, Stanley, “Director’s Notes,” in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, edited by Mario Falsetto (New York:G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 23–25;
   ■ LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999);
   ■ Ustinov, Peter, Dear Me: An Autobiography (London: Heinemann, 1977).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • Laurence Olivier — noun English actor best know for his Shakespearean roles (1907 1989) • Syn: ↑Olivier, ↑Sir Laurence Kerr Olivier, ↑Baron Olivier of Birghton • Instance Hypernyms: ↑actor, ↑histrion, ↑player, ↑thespian, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

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