In his day, Laurence Olivier was widely considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, if not of all time. These days there are plenty of dissenters willing to point out his penchant for theatrical acting, funny accents and funnier false noses. He certainly spent the last few years of his career more concerned with the size of his cheque than the quality of the project. However, no other actor has made a greater contribution to his profession.
His dad was a clergyman (his uncle was a lord and Governor of Jamaica) and he attended All Saints school where he developed a love for acting. He won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama and quickly worked up to leading man status. He even made a couple of English-language versions of German films. Around this time he married his first wife Jill Esmond.
The big break came with the original production of Private Lives starring Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence; he played Victor (the hapless second husband). He went to Broadway with the production and got noticed by Hollywood. His time there was brief – he couldn't take the place seriously – and took the first chance he could to go home. He returned to do Queen Christina starring Greta Garbo, but got replaced after a fortnight by John Gilbert.
In 1935 he was invited to alternate the parts of Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud at the Old Vic. His Romeo was slated, but during the rest of the decade his work at the Old Vic grew in stature. Another big event happened in 1935 too: he met Vivien Leigh.
Theirs was one of the century's great romances. They managed to keep their affair secret for a couple of years, but by the time she landed the role of Scarlett O'Hara it was an open secret. They married in 1940 and were the most glamorous couple of their era.
The Oliviers returned to Britain during the war and he joined the Naval Reserve. He directed his first film Henry V in 1944 and was knighted in 1947. By now his position as the greatest actor of his generation was secure.
The 50s started out well for him, but as the decade wore on his professional and personal lives became difficult. The marriage to Vivien Leigh foundered due to her ill-health (both physical and mental) and her perceived "unworthiness" to share a stage with him. With the arrival of the Angry Young Man and kitchen-sink drama, his style of theatrical glamour became old hat. He solved these problems by joining the Royal Court theatre to play Archie Rice in The Entertainer and by taking-up with his co-star, Joan Plowright.
He spent the 60s building up the National Theatre and was given a peerage in 1970. The rest of his life was spent cashing in on his reputation in a succession of film roles, most of which were unworthy of his talent.
|1930||Too Many Crooks|
|1930||The Temporary Widow (Ger.)|
|1931||The Yellow Ticket (U.S.)|
|1931||Friends and Lovers (U.S.)|
|1931||Westward Passage (U.S.)|
|1932||No Funny Business|
|1935||Conquest of the Air|
|1936||As You Like It|
|1936||Fire Over England|
|1938||The Divorce of Lady X|
|1939||Wuthering Heights (U.S.)|
|1940||Pride and Prejudice (U.S.)|
|1941||Lady Hamilton (U.S.)|
|1951||The Magic Box|
|1952||The Beggar's Opera|
|1958||The Prince and the Showgirl|
|1959||The Devil's Disciple|
|1962||Term of Trial|
|1965||Bunny Lake is Missing|
|1968||The Shoes of the Fisherman|
|1969||Oh What a Lovely War|
|1969||The Dance of Death|
|1969||The Battle of Britain|
|1970||The Three Sisters|
|1971||Nicholas and Alexandra|
|1972||Lady Caroline Lamb|
|1976||Marathon Man (U.S.)|
|1976||The Seven Per Cent Solution (U.S.)|
|1977||The Betsy (U.S.)|
|1977||A Bridge Too Far|
|1978||The Boys from Brazil (U.S.)|
|1978||A Little Romance|
|1981||Clash of the Titans|
|1981||The Jazz Singer (U.S.)|
|1984||The Bounty (U.S.)|
|1984||The Jigsaw Man|
|1985||Wild Geese II|
Laurence Olivier at Amazon UK
Laurence Olivier at Amazon US