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The man who wasn't there
on 2 November 2013
Olivier is a biography of the great man which leans more towards the factual than the analytical. It is primarily a biography of his professional life with relatively short sections dedicated to his childhood and to his declining years.
The picture which comes across is not an unfamiliar one for a man seen as great through his achievements.Visionary and charismatic, but also prepared to be insensitive to the point of cruelty with those who are not, or who are no longer, useful to him. As a study in leadership, it is fascinating, as while Olivier had many of the characteristics of a great leader, he had the added benefit of the power of the expert. As well as having the vision, he was also viewed as the greatest at doing the job of those he was leading, namely acting.
Being too young to have seen the great man on stage, it is difficult to understand the awe in which he was held. The screen performances have a distinct odour of cured porcine, and it would be interesting to know the balance between these simply portraying an acting style to the taste of a different age, as against being those of a stage actor struggling with a different medium. The fact that contemporary and possible peer, Gielgud's performances do seem to stand up better suggests that the latter is true.
The relationship with Gielgud is one of the most interesting parts of the book, which portrays rivalry, petty jealousy, but also mutual admiration and acts of great kindness; Gielgud's gift of a sword bequeathed to him by a great actor of the past, Olivier's defence of Gielgud when there were attempts to bar him from the Garrick club on account of his homosexuality. In the end, the picture is of Olivier the greater actor-director, Gielgud the greater human being.
The weaknesses of Olivier's character run through the book suggesting a man who may have been easier to love than to like, inspiring but petty, engaging but cold. This is a theme which is strongest in the consideration of Olivier's love life, a particular area where the author displays his tendency to present facts rather than to analyse or to judge . Here is a man who was married three times, who had a life of towering passion with Vivien Leigh,but who was also a serial adulterer, seemingly taking lovers, frequently his fellow actors, as a habit, in a fashion in which normal mortals take holidays.
He is portrayed as a man of great contradictions, capable of extravagant public praise for a rival, but intense personal jealousy; an instinctive conservative who sought to embrace radicalism in the theatre; a man with an intense desire for control who tried (not always successfully) to encourage free thinking subordinates; less seriously a rampant heterosexual who adopted the screamingly camp speech patterns of the archetypal "luvvie". Perhaps the contradictions are more understandable when viewed as being part of a man who suppressed some natural elements of his character in order to serve his drive and ambition.
At the end the most lasting impression is that of a man who was defined by his work in two fundamental ways. Quite clearly he will be remembered for his achievements, the great Shakespearean roles, the support for modernism in the theatre, and above all the development of the National Theatre. He is also portrayed as an actor in personal as well as professional life; his biographer, his contemporaries and the man himself all question whether they knew him, or he knew himself. At the end of the day was he simply a man of great ambition who acted whatever role was expected of him , or was necessary to succeed, but in whom the intrinsic core character was under developed.
I cannot say, with the voice of anyone who was around at the time of Olivier's public prominence, whether this is a great autobiography. However, if you are someone with an interest in the theatre or in acting, and who is aware of the man as a historical presence, but doesn't know a great deal more, then you are likely to find this a absorbing read.