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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews


By Jeff Lewonczyk

  Olivier by Terry Coleman Henry Holt & Co., 595 pp., $32.50

Sir Laurence Olivier, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, was never entirely content to be a mere performer. The press, his peers, the nobility of England and his legions of fans (in distinct but overlapping film and theater camps) laid down for him a red carpet to the throne of legendhood, and Olivier-never one to leave such a crimson path untrodden-had the charm, arrogance, talent and dedication to follow it without coming off as a poseur. If the brutal, profane Twentieth Century could be said to have theatrical royalty, then Olivier was its gleeful king.

As such, one can be excused for approaching an official Olivier biography-its author handpicked by the Olivier estate-with a degree of trepidation. Late in his life, Sir Laurence told his own story his own way in his famously circumspect autobiography Confessions Of An Actor, with a sly, chatty candor that obscured as much as it revealed; would his ghost (aided by its widow, the formidable Dame Joan Plowright) prevent a hired hand from digging deeper than a true muckraker might?

The answer to this rather naïve question is: of course not-especially when the biographer selected is Terry Coleman, a novelist and historian whose work as a special correspondent for The Guardian sent him to half the nations of the world and into the presence of heads of state. Coleman’s research is exhaustive, calling upon a vast trove of letters, journals and personal interviews that present the many facets-some of them uniquely unattractive-of his subject. But if Coleman refuses to pull punches in his diminution of a giant to the status of lowly human (albeit a dazzlingly gifted one), in doing so he manages to displace the very strain of romance that makes the life attractive in the first place.

From his humble beginnings as a parsimonious preacher’s son through his early triumphs on the British stage; from his spell as a Hollywood heartthrob through his maturity as an interpreter of Shakespeare on stage and film; through all his marriages, affairs, and honorary titles, Sir Laurence never lacked for a well-spoken anecdote, and Coleman never fails to dispatch each one with a knowing smirk. The self-aggrandizing and truth-bending of show people is no secret, but Coleman seems content most of the time to reveal the smallness of the man behind the curtain without exploring why, over 15 years after his death, we’re still interested in what went on in front of that curtain. Olivier never claims to be a critical biography, but one can’t help but be disappointed by the short shrift Coleman gives the man’s prodigious output as an actor, director and producer in favor of the lurid (and, yes, fascinating) details of his private life, especially in regard to second wife (and co-legend) Vivian Leigh.

The one exception is Olivier’s tenure as the director of the fledgling National Theatre; Coleman’s lengthy account of Olivier’s late-life struggles to erect and then administrate this institution makes for a very readable saga of professional triumph and hardship (and, not incidentally, paints the National’s literary advisor, critic Kenneth Tynan, as one of the most horrid beasts in the history of letters). But the political machinations of a government-sponsored artistic enterprise, compelling though they can be, only further whet the appetite created earlier in the book by Coleman’s cursory but captivating accounts of Olivier’s creative process in his great (and not so great) performances.

Though it makes a passable introduction to the life and times of a fine actor, a groundbreaking director, a dedicated producer, and, above all, a complicated and difficult husband, father and lover, one can’t help but think that Olivier deserves better than Olivier. The autobiography, with all its distortions, might actually provide a more accurate experience of understanding a man who tried to be every


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