Laurence Olivier: His dysfunctional marriage to Vivien Leigh and his rivalry with Orson Welles

From the start, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were cast as the golden couple, the Brad and Jen of their day. He was the rising star of Shakespeare in British theatre, she was the doll-like beauty who had beaten the heavy artillery of Hollywood to land the plum role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. They smiled for the cameras on a hundred red carpets and certainly looked good, but their 20-year marriage was stormy and dysfunctional, a hotbed of mutual unhappiness.

in his new book Really pissed offearlier, former Hollywood reporter Author Stephen Galloway uses archival interviews and a psychologist’s opinion to explore the emotional minefield of the Olivier Leigh connection. And it seems like a small miracle that it took so long.

Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder that caused wild mood swings and impulsive behavior. The couple met on the set of the 1937 film Fire over England, and began a passionate affair. Both were married at the time, an uncomfortable truth that was hushed up in Hollywood due to strict studio morality clauses.

Their relationship remained secret throughout Leigh’s Oscar-winning triumph Blown by the windand Olivier’s box office success in Wuthering Heights, and when they married in late 1940, Olivier had some idea of ​​what was to come. He had already noticed Leigh’s instability, and after they settled into the home together, she alternated alcoholic slumps with naked frolicking in the garden, unscheduled appearances in the bedrooms of terrified guests.

There were suicide attempts, electric shock treatments, affairs on both sides. And though she won a second Oscar for her portrayal of faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois End station longing (1951), the last years of her life were marked by mental and physical decline. The couple divorced in 1960, and Vivien Leigh was just 53 when she died of tuberculosis in 1967.

“I would rather have lived a short life with Larry,” she said philosophically, “than have a long life without him.” Perhaps their marriage would have been happier if they hadn’t both pursued the same uncertain profession.

It cannot have been easy for Leigh, a magnificent and versatile performer of stage and screen, to be married to a man often described as the greatest actor of his time, a director, performer, actor-manager and innovator who championed the British Theater changed and Shakespeare brought the crowds to himself. She must have felt blocked by such prodigious talent, and Olivier was not always generous to his peers: prone to fits of jealousy, indulging mainly in good-natured rivalries with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and his American nemesis Orson Welles, he had a surprising amount in common .

Brilliant but insecure and fiercely competitive, Olivier could be treacherous when threatened. Still, he accomplished so much, developed an incomparable technique, and became one of those actors to whom all subsequent contenders are compared. Not bad for a vicar’s son from Dorking.

Laurence did not get along with his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier, an Anglican priest whose glory in the church made him an unpopular and itinerant minister. Young Larry was devoted to his mother Agnes Olivier, whose death at 12 left him devastated. Still, it was his father who decided he should become an actor, perhaps because Gerard secretly wanted to be one himself.

As a child, Larry watched his father from the pulpit: Gerard, he later recalled in his biography, knew “when to lower his voice, when to roar about the dangers of Hellfire, when to put a gag on his head, when to suddenly become sentimental …”

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Larry was learning but seemed like a natural actor from the start. When he appeared in a school production of Julius CaesarTheir legendary actress Ellen Terry happened to be in the audience and wrote in her diary: “The little boy who played Brutus is already a great actor”. Oliver was 10.

After winning a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Theater where he honed his craft by playing Shakespeare and Chekhov. His talent was evident but his technique was sometimes criticized. His Shakespearean turns were manly, boldly physical, his delivery more subdued and naturalistic than the norm. He wanted to speak normally and avoid the singing style popular at the time. “The Shakespearean actors you saw were terrible amateurs,” he said.

When he came to the Old Vic to play Hamlet in 1937, his performance was compared unfavorably to John Gielgud, whose musical interpretation of the role was considered the gold standard of the time. But Olivier brought passion and rigor to the role and during his time at the Old Vic he wowed audiences and critics alike with his ability to disappear behind props and makeup to become old men, kings, beggars, cads. His Richard III. was particularly admired and later immortalized in the film.

Concurrent with his meteoric rise through British theater, Oliver had been experimenting with film. His voice, composure and sharp good looks propelled him well to film stardom, but when he was invited to Hollywood to play Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation Wuthering Heightshe learned a valuable lesson.

It wasn’t a happy shoot: Olivier wholeheartedly loathed his co-star Merle Oberon and balked at being asked to reshoot scenes, sometimes as many as 70 times. “Again,” Wyler said without explanation, but Olivier then credited the director for teaching him how to act in the film. In front Wuthering Heightshe’d tended to “thump” it like playing on the second-row balcony, but after that his film appearances were always grounded.

He excelled as the brooding Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebekah (1940), shorn and proud as Mr. Darcy in pride and prejudice (also 1940). But in the meantime Britain and Europe were under siege, and in 1943 Olivier returned to England to make what was to become his crowning film.


Laurence Olivier in the title role of Henry V, a film shot in part in Co Wicklow

It was the British Ministry of Information’s idea to make a film adaptation of Shakespeare Henry V, commemorating old glory to boost national morale. Before filming began, Winston Churchill himself emerged from a haze of cigar smoke to give Olivier a pep talk. After initially asking John Ford to direct the film, Olivier took on the role himself, producing and starring in the most important British film of the time.

Henry VThe location of was shot at the Powerscourt estate in Co Wicklow and the finished film was a triumph, engaging and moving, beautiful to behold. It was even well received in America when it was published there in 1946, to the apparent displeasure of Orson Welles, who claimed that the Battle of Agincourt looked like it was taking place on a golf course. Perhaps the big man was jealous: he too brought Shakespeare to the big screen in the 1940s and 50s, while Olivier had an impressive £500,000 to play at the time Henry V, and a similar sum for his Oscar-winning 1948 film hamletOrson had to settle for peanuts. His Macbeth (1948) was essentially a B-picture made with discarded western sets and costumes. and Welles’ Othello (1951) took three years to shoot in scraps, as Orson had to finance the film himself by working on the side as an actor in other films.

Orson watched angrily from the sidelines while Olivier was celebrated in Hollywood and Broadway in the 1940s, but Larry didn’t have it all his way. His marriage to Leigh was a source of recurring dissatisfaction, and in the 1950s his career plummeted as he focused on the life of an actor-manager and seemed to lose interest in performing.

He was also on the verge of looking dated when Olivier, against his better judgment, agreed to star in the 1957 Royal Court production of John Osborne’s play. The Entertainer. He was apparently electrifying as the seedy and desolate music hall performer Archie Rice, whom he played alongside Joan Plowright, who would become his third and final wife. After reprising the role of Archie in Tony Richardson’s 1960 film version, Olivier undertook the gargantuan task of founding Britain’s National Theater and building an impressive troupe of actors at the Old Vic, while constructing a new purpose-built theater on the banks of the Thames became .

Some of these young actors, like Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins, made fruity impressions of Olivier behind his back. But they did so out of admiration for an actor who embodied a national theatrical tradition. When he died in 1989, Olivier was buried alongside royalty and poets in Westminster Abbey. Anything else would have been unthinkable.


Really, Madly by Stephen Galloway

Stephen Galloway’s Truly, Madly is available now

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