A Tribute to Laurence Olivier
Was Laurence Olivier the greatest English-speaking actor of the 20th century? As always, it’s a matter of opinion, but the smart money is on “yes.”
Born on May 22, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, UK, the son of a clergyman, Olivier began appearing on stage at the age of fifteen. He attended London’s Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts, and later joined the Birmingham Repertory theater, gradually earning a reputation as a Shakespearean actor. He also began making films beginning in 1930, although his initial fling with Hollywood was not very successful, and he returned home. Fire Over England (1937) was one of the most notable, if only for his affair with the married Vivien Leigh, who he later married after both he and Vivien were divorced. They appeared together in two more films after their marriage, 21 Days Together (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941).
Olivier tried Hollywood again in 1939, and struck pay dirt with Wuthering Heights, for which he received the first of nine Oscar nominations for Best Actor (two wins). He followed this up in 1940 with Rebecca (a second nomination) and Pride and Prejudice, firmly establishing his reputation as one of the great screen personalities of his time.
Olivier wanted William Wyler to direct him in Henry V, but when Wyler said no, Olivier directed it himself in 1945. It became first successful Shakespearean film, winning Olivier a special Oscar for outstanding achievement, not to mention another Best Actor nomination. He was knighted in 1947, then nominated as Best Director for Hamlet in 1948, winning the Best Actor Oscar for that same film and becoming the first person ever to direct himself in an Oscar-winning role. (Roberto Benigni became the second, in 1997.)
Olivier and Vivien Leigh divorced in 1960, and he then married Joan Plowright, his co-star in The Entertainer, that same year. (They remained married until his death.) Olivier was made a Life Peer in 1970, giving him the right to sit in the House of Lords.
Sir Larry continued making two or three films a year well into his seventies and eighties, and was nominated twice more for Best Actor and once for Best Supporting Actor during the 1970s (none of them, it should be noted, Shakespearean films). He even did some TV, recieving five Emmy Awards, most notably for the delightful Love Among the Ruins (1975) in which he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn, appropriately only 10 days his senior in age.
Olivier died in 1989, after appearing in almost 100 films and TV movies and countless plays over a period of six decades. While the quality of the films he appeared in may have varied, it could never be said that he wasn’t a hard working actor, and his best work was as good as any other, and usually a lot better.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters