Picks and Pans Review: Laurence Olivier

UPDATED 01/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

by Anthony Holden

He became Sir Laurence at 39 (the youngest actor ever knighted), an Academy Award winner (Hamlet, 1949) at 41, Lord Olivier at 63 (the first peerage that was ever given an actor). Laurence Olivier—now 81, ailing and retired—has received perhaps every attention his nation and the theatrical profession can bestow. But Holden's rewarding biography reassures us that Lord Olivier's honors are no more than his due. That the true personality of his subject escapes him cannot be held against Holden. Laurence Olivier's "real" self seems to have eluded not only Olivier himself, but those close to him. Olivier: "I'm not sure what I'm like...I'm far from sure when I'm acting and when I am not. Or, more frankly, when I am lying and when I am not." His wife (the third) of almost 30 years, actress Joan Plowright: "Larry? Oh, he's acting all the time." It is Holden's own conclusion that Olivier is "a born actor who has spent his long life auditioning to be himself, the one role he could never quite pin down." This biography offers perhaps more than most Americans will care to know of the childhood of this Church of England clergyman's son. There's a surplus of detail, too, about the behind-the-scenes politicking at Britain's National Theatre, of which Olivier became director in 1963. No reader can fail to be moved, however, by the account of Olivier's harrowing 20-year marriage to the manic-depressive actress Vivien Leigh and the late-in-life happiness he shares with Plowright and their three children. Holden provides vivid portraits of Olivier's renowned Shakespearean roles—Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, Othello, Titus Andronicus—and many more modern ones, among these Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Too frail in his later life to take on major acting efforts, Olivier accepted many trivial but lucrative cameo roles in films, and in 1973 was paid $1 million for making a television commercial. It is only this, Holden notes, that enables Tony Manero (John Travolta) in Saturday Night Fever to place him. "Laurence Olivier? Who's that?" "Oh, come on. You know, the guy on television, the one who did the Polaroid commercials." "Oh, yeah, him. He's good." (Atheneum, $22.50)

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