One thing my mother has passed along to me along with grandmother's linen and narrow feet is that Laurence Olivier is the only actor worth cutting off your arm for. In his case, actually, it would more likely be jumping out of a tree for, or leaping over a wall for. The British-produced two-part biography of Lord Olivier that begins tonight on WETA-Channel 26 at 9 p.m. does everything, thank heavens, to confirm that view, and nothing to tarnish his position as genius and standard-bearer of excellence.
From the opening film clip, one of Olivier as a beefy policeman watching the first-ever motion picture in the obscure "The Magic Box" (1951), to the closing shot of the aging star walking slowly off the stage of the Old Vic theater, "Laurence Olivier -- A Life" (a part of the Great Performances series) is put together with taste, intelligence and wit. The interviewer is Melvyn Bragg, who also edited the three hours of film, and one can only hope that Barbara Walters and her colleagues will watch and take notes. Bragg, while clearly (and properly) respectful and admiring, never fawns or asks inane questions. Filmed over a period of several months in 1982, when Olivier was 74 and 75, the program shows the actor in a variety of moods from expansive and chatty to testy and pensive.
Most of the anecdotes will be familiar to those who have read Olivier's autobiography and the several books about him; the beauty here is hearing him or one of his friends tell them, and they love to tell stories. Launching into the well-known story of how his father told him, as he took a lukewarm bath, that he would be an actor, Olivier lubricates the tale as though he were telling it for the first time. Furthermore, many of the stories are illustrated with film clips or pictures, an artful use of the medium that makes this film a real treasure.
Olivier describes how, when directing his landmark film of "Henry V," he had to demonstrate for the Irish farmers he hired as extras how he wanted them to jump out of a tree, and the story is followed by a clip from the film showing the scene. A section describing his Hollywood years and efforts to get his then wife-to-be Vivien Leigh film roles is augmented with rare footage of her screen test -- with him -- for "Rebecca."
One of the real joys of the film is the appearance of Sir Ralph Richardson, who died in 1983, talking about his old friend as though he were chatting over the back fence. "Fifty years and never a cross word," he says, "very delightful fellow . . ." and then proceeds to tell several stories that describe cross words as well as youthful and not-so-youthful shenanigans. "In the days when we were young he was much younger than I was," Richardson muses toward the end of the program. "Now he's older," he says, attributing the difference to Olivier's having done much more in his life than he, Richardson, had.
Olivier is by turns refreshingly frank and guarded, refusing to read a speech from "King Lear," for example, or to talk much about his breakup with Leigh, whose mental problems, along with their marital problems, he described in detail in his book. Indeed, there is more information in his book about the major traumas in his life than there is in this program, which is not to say they are glossed over -- they are merely not detailed. The Old Vic board's summary dismissal of him and Richardson in 1949 still rankles, for example, as does his forced retirement from the National Theatre several decades later.
He speaks freely about his childhood, the traumatic death of his mother when he was 12, how he was considered "a bit sissy" by his prep school classmates. "I never was in fact," he says. "I'm not boasting . . . some of my best friends are queers." He talks about his problem with giggling on stage, and how he thought himself too skinny to show any part of his body on stage and for years padded his calves when he wore tights, or painted his legs with makeup to make them look shapelier. (Painting, he added, requires you to shave your legs, and "people you happen to be in bed with complain because of the prickles.")
He is not very forthcoming when Bragg probes him about his technique in developing specific roles, however, squirming like a fish on a hook. "I think technique is a technician's business," he says grumpily. A few seconds later he explains that talking about technique will only help his critics, who complain that he too often relies on physical and vocal skill at the expense of emotion. (A criticism that is completely unwarranted, I might add.)
A few complaints: There is too much footage of Vivien Leigh's films, and a few superfluous clips of period newsreels. Worst of all is an addendum misguidedly tacked on to the first segment by the American distributors, a pointless collection of American and English-born actors, such as John Lithgow, Jessica Tandy and Raul Julia, giving their views on Olivier. They are perfectly nice people, but who cares what they think?
The reasons why he is a brilliant actor are not easily explained in words, as the American actors' addendum so clearly demonstrates. But a film such as this shows rather than tells you, and for that reason alone it is a valuable record.
And why should a non-Olivier buff watch this program? Because the story, like the man, is inspiring. It is the story of a man for whom success did not come easily, who worked hard, who overcame physical and intellectual shortcomings and paralyzing stage fright in his later years, who learned to laugh at himself and to make mistakes. He is dealing with old age and illness with realistic grace, doing movies because he can't manage plays anymore, but it is not a grace that came without first going through depression, resentment and crankiness. At one point, says his wife Joan Plowright, his illness seemed to take the form of "a kind of nervous breakdown, as though he had given up." Work brought him back, she says, and he went on to play "King Lear" for television not long after. He is still working, and intends to until work is impossible.
We shall not see his like again.