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Olivier: the authorized biography    by Terry Coleman order for
by Terry Coleman
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I can still remember my first exposure to Laurence Olivier's expressive energy and subtle drama in his black and white film of Hamlet. So, I opened Terry Coleman's biography with anticipation, despite being a little daunted by its size. I found it excellent - thoroughly researched and engrossing - and especially appreciated the many quotes from Olivier's diary entries, as well as letters to, from, and about the actor.

Coleman begins: 'Laurence Olivier was the greatest English actor and man of the theatre of the twentieth century, and he was this because of his devouring will, and his magic, and his genius.' The biographer goes on to tells us that Olivier disliked the word genius, considering himself a craftsman. He suggests that readers take the actor's autobiography 'with a large pinch of salt', given that long illness affected Olivier's recollections, and that he was a mythmaker, in the habit of instinctively improving the truth. We're told that 'young Laurence adored his mother and detested his father' (sadly Agnes Olivier died in 1920 when her son was twelve). He had a 'gentleman's education' and won a bursary to drama school. He acted in the provinces before being offered a series of leads at the West End, and then a part in New York, where he followed actress Jill Esmond, to whom he had already proposed marriage (they wed in 1930). Films followed, taking the couple to Hollywood for two years. An opportunity to work with Greta Garbo fell through, when the young Olivier 'was found wanting', a rejection that haunted him.

An offer from John Gielgud offered Olivier the lead in Romeo and Juliet. 1936 was a significant year, when he met Vivien Leigh and also decided to become a Shakespearian actor. He did this differently from the norm. His method? 'Find reality through the verse, and if the verse is a sort of veil in front of reality you go through that veil and take a little bit of the veil with you.' Then came his star-maker movie, Wuthering Heights, followed by Vivien's huge success as Scarlett o'Hara in Gone With the Wind. In 1940, after each of their divorces came through, they secretly wed in California. Coleman shows us early signs of Vivien's developing mental illness in strange behavior, and an early overdose while she was filming in Hollywood. In wartime, Olivier joined up for fairly tame service with the flying arm of the navy and the making of propaganda movies. The latter included Henry V, the first successful Shakespearian film - in which Olivier was 'actor, producer, director, finder of horse-shoe nails; everything.' This was followed by his 'performance of a lifetime' in Richard III in an Old Vic revival, and the Hamlet film.

We're shown the cracks that began to show in the legendary couple's relationship, Vivien's series of breakdowns, and increasingly bizarre public behavior. Coleman quotes Noel Coward - 'here they are trapped by public acclaim, scrabbling about in the cold ashes of a physical passion that burnt itself out years ago'. Olivier finally made the break and married Joan Plowright. He put all his energies into the development of the National Theatre, despite serious recurrent illness, and continued with roles in films like Marathon Man and The Betsy. He died in 1989. The book ends with tributes in Olivier Remembered, and a discussion of rumors of bisexuality, The Androgynous Actor. Earlier, Coleman speaks of the first time a critic remarked on 'that most Olivier-like characteristic, that he did not merely act a character but, through the means of his acting, became that character.' In Olivier, he shows us the larger than life man behind the actor's larger than life legend.

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