Laurence Olivier biography spotlights an insecure man's struggle for fame




Donald Spoto.



460 pages. $23.

Not to put too fine a point on it, biographer Donald Spoto -- who has given us scrupulously researched chronicles of director Alfred Hitchcock and playwright Tennessee Williams -- is the Kitty Kelley of scholars.

Like his earlier books, Mr. Spoto's latest, "Laurence Olivier: A Biography," marinates dry facts in juicy gossip. Admittedly, it's a crude way to give savor to the former and meat to the latter, but who can resist his dish that Lord Olivier, the much-married king of Shakespearean tragedians, enjoyed a secret 10-year homosexual romp with American clown prince Danny Kaye?

As befits the study of perhaps the century's premier interpreter of classical drama, "Laurence Olivier" is a tragedy in four compelling acts.

The curtain rises in 1907 on the humble choirboy who would become a peer of the realm. The second act introduces grown-up Olivier, the Ronald Colman impersonator and failed film actor who hurls himself into the role of Shakespearean popularizer.

We follow this epitome of 20th century England as he evolves from the dinner-jacketed sophisticate of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" to the seedy music-hall relic in John Osborne's "The Entertainer." Along the way, he married the socially proper Jill Esmond, left her for the vixenish Vivien Leigh, and left her for the politically correct Joan Plowright.

His last act is one of recrimination and regret, rivaling his own late-career performances in "King Lear" and "Othello." Estranged from the third of his wife/actress/consorts, jealous of any award given if he is not the recipient, diseased and lonely, Olivier dwindles away.

In Mr. Spoto's view, the actor's death in 1989 was one of the few scenes that the adult Olivier hadn't rehearsed. His biographer's post-mortem: that Olivier, the man who most profoundly summoned an ocean of emotions onstage, was personally a dribble of a man lacking access to his own feelings -- not to mention those of others.


In his chronicles of Alfred Hitchcock ("The Dark Side of Genius") and Preston Sturges ("Madcap"), Mr. Spoto assumed that these creative geniuses must have been men of profundity and compassion; how bitter he was that they didn't measure up. His ambivalence toward these subjects inspired a similar love/hate in the reader.

Happily, Mr. Spoto spares Lord Larry the pathography. The author, however, does not spare the actor the psychologizing.

He traces Olivier's epic insecurity and insatiable hunger for acclaim to the death of his adoring mother when he was 12 and the remoteness of his clergyman father.

To the author, Olivier's fun-loving mother and social-climbing father bequeathed their son a split personality: "The mature Laurence Olivier could be alternately an affable companion without social pretense and a celebrity with the grave air of a venerable nobleman."

More persuasive is Mr. Spoto's suggestion that, lacking a personality of his own, the young Olivier adopted that of England. In the biographer's perceptive view, when in 1936 the emerging theatrical hero essayed the title role in "Henry V," "Olivier had . . . communicated what every Englishman felt -- an almost dangerous pride in the achievements of the Empire and a simultaneous feeling that everything could be lost at any moment."

Mr. Spoto atmospherically summons the changing London stage world over the 20th century, carefully detailing how the theater shaped Olivier, and how the actor/director returned the compliment. He would interpret Shakespeare on stage and on screen (employing Freudian interpretations of "Hamlet"), as well as co-found Britain's National Theatre.


The most memorable passages of this book involve Olivier's desperate struggle for recognition. For many years, he was consigned to the oblivion of supporting roles on stage and to the ignominy of seeing his first and second wife courted by a Hollywood that rejected him for being a pale imitation of Ronald Colman. When he discovered Shakespeare, Olivier found himself. "In his Romeo, Mercutio, Hamlet, Henry, Macbeth and Coriolanus, audiences beheld something recognizably true about human life -- not because Olivier communicated himself, but because he submerged himself," Mr. Spoto writes of his technique, the inverse of method acting.

For those who never had the opportunity to see Lord Olivier on stage, Mr. Spoto's evocations of individual performances are essential reading. Drawing from the testimony of those who saw Olivier live, the author quietly recounts how in 1937 his Macbeth's "unearthly howl" at seeing Banquo's ghost resonated throughout theatrical history.

While his lifelong rival (and mentor) John Gielgud focused on Shakespeare's poetry, Olivier brought an athletic urgency to his interpretations, captivating popular audiences if alarming his co-stars by goring them in swordplay. Without Mr. Gielgud's invitation, Olivier would never have dared the Shakespearean roles that defined his career. Nor would Olivier have followed Mr. Gielgud's lead as a producer-director.

So graceful in its treatment of the actor's professional achievements, "Laurence Olivier" undergoes a drastic tone change whenever its author deals with material of a more personal nature. When offering evidence of Jill Esmond's lesbian preferences, Vivien Leigh's erotic hunger or Joan Plowright's ravenous careerism, Mr. Spoto's mellifluous, learned voice gets shrill and catty. And when he recounts Olivier's psychological and sexual diffidence, as when the actor abandons the emotionally troubled Leigh (for whom the author exhibits real tenderness), the author can get coarsely moralistic: "Olivier knew he had taken advantage of Vivien's love, had exploited her as a useful public consort, had nourished his own ego with her unalloyed devotion."

For those interested purely in gossip, "Laurence Olivier" does not disappoint. Apart from the liaison with Kaye, Mr. Spoto catalogs various others. There are the actor's dalliances with actresses Dorothy Tutin and Sarah Miles and his "crushes" on Peter Finch (who would bed Leigh) and dramaturge-writer Kenneth Tynan. Mr. Spoto insinuates (but cannot prove) that Olivier and Tynan were sexually involved.

While this book divulges more about the Olivier-Kaye affair than it does about the actor's 27-year marriage to Joan Plowright, it is indispensable for students of theater. The actor's struggle for his exalted throne may be the most compelling drama in which he acted.