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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on 25 October 2013
I eat up anything by Philip Ziegler and this was a double pleasure as Olivier fascinates me. Having said that, Mr Ziegler is such a good writer that my conceptions of Olivier underwent a vast change. Brilliant actor he may have been but as a man I don't think I would have liked him very much. The book is fascinating and I learnt a great deal, swiftly turning the pages as I always do with this man's work, and ultimately ending up feeling vaguely upset at the great man's weaknesses which he hid so well, his illnesses and injuries were something I knew nothing about. For anyone like me who is fascinated by this man this is well worth a read.
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on 16 November 2013
Have just finished reading Zeigler's book on Sir Laurence Olivier. I was lucky enough to work for L.O.P.Ltd. for 3 years in the early sixties when Sir Laurence was involved with the Chichester Theatre and I found him a charming, friendly man who treated me with courtesy and charm. I was expecting a book which would go into greater detail about Sir Laurence's stage and film performances and was very disappointed when so much of his work was missed out from the book. It would have been helpful to have an index listing his performances but again this was missing. I thought the chapters on the National Theatre were too long so that other aspects of his activities had to be missed out. There was also no real mention of his fight to save the St.James's Theatre where he and Vivien Leigh had been involved. A very mixed up book which I would not recommend to anyone who wanted more facts about Sir Laurence and his works.
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on 11 January 2014
Ziegler's tome seems an unnecessary addition to an already crowded bookshelf of retrospective literary works on the life and career of arguably the greatest English actor of his generation. The early stuff has already been more thoroughly covered by other biographers and by Olivier himself. The later years are sketchy and seem to be too sensitive to the likely reactions of his widow and children. Indeed the viewpoint of his widow (Joan Plowright) is too often the author's guideline to the interpretation of events to make this a totally unbiased account. The National Theatre years are given a much more accurate and incisive analysis in his protoge Michael Blakemore's book STAGE BLOOD. Ziegler's work adds nothing new to the existing wealth of biographies and memoirs of this unique twentieth century theatrical force. A major disappointment.
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on 22 November 2014
I couldn't help feeling disappointed by this book especially in view of the good reviews it received.

It would have been better if Ziegler had left out everything before and after Olivier's time at the National Theatre and called his book 'Olivier and the National Theatre'. For it is this section which is by far the strongest and most interesting as it goes into great detail on this period of Olivier's life.

Everything else is told in scant detail, particularly the last 15 years of Olivier's life which Ziegler races through in a mere 30 pages.

I found it difficult to keep tracks of events as there was often little reference made to dates and when there were they caused confusion as they appeared out of sequence. The biography lurches awkwardly and abruptly from one stage of Olivier's career to another with each new chapter as though the book were an anthology with each segment written by a different author.

The lack of detail was often frustrating, For example Ziegler mentions that Olivier had just done a film (what film?) or a play (which play?) and whatever people may say about Donald Spoto's biography (which I much preferred) no one could ever accuse that biographer of failing to provide an adequate amount of detailed research.

There are many significant plays and particularly films in Olivier’s career that are either skimmed over or omitted altogether.

Other reviewers have pointed out the factual errors in this biography, one in particular that stood out for me was Ziegler's assertion that during Olivier's farewell party on the set of 'Marathon Man' Dustin Hoffman 'proposed a toast to "a great soldier, a great warrior" but not to "a great actor"...'

I've seen footage of this party and Hoffman specifically praises Olivier as 'a great actor' in the same sentence as calling him 'a great soldier'.

How is it possible for Ziegler to make that mistake?

I finished the book thinking that Olivier, who some may argue (with justification) was not actually the greatest actor of his generation, but was unquestionably a man whose dedication and work ethic were almost superhuman, deserved a better and fuller account of his life and work.
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on 16 October 2013
When I was growing up, I was led me to believe that Olivier was a great man, someone to look up to and admire. A great actor indeed (I saw him once in The Master Builder at the Old Vic), but Ziegler's book has the ring of truth about it and brings outa very different sort of person, warts and all. After reading this book it's not so easy to admire Olivier - he comes across in the book as arrogant, uncouth, uncharitable ... and yet, and yet, perhaps this goes hand-in-hand with genius? Anyway a fascinating read, a story well told, full of insights.
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on 30 December 2013
I enjoyed the book very much and it is certainly well-written. I agree with a previous reviewer that there is perhaps too much on the National Theatre period, especially on the drawn-out issue of the succession. Here I feel too obvious a reliance is placed on Sir Peter Hall's diaries.
The main thing that bothered me was a series of factual errors, that shouldn't really have got past the editing stage. To give some examples: when discussing Olivier's attitude before filming "Wuthering Heights", Mr Ziegler suggests that Olivier felt Merle Oberon would not be so good as Cathy as Vivien Leigh would have been, but that he "had heard good things about her" and that she might well be acceptable as an alternative. This gives the impression that Olivier had not himself worked with Miss Oberon, whereas they had starred together in "The Divorce of Lady X" only the previous year. Secondly, when discussing the 1955 "Macbeth", it is suggested that Harry Andrews played Macduff, though in fact the part was played by Keith Michell. Finally, when relating the setting up of his projected film of "Richard III", Mr Ziegler has Olivier first approaching impresario Mike Todd to produce the film, but turning to Alexander Korda following Mr Todd's death in a plane crash. Mr Todd was killed in 1958, whereas "Richard III" was shot in the summer of 1954 and released in 1955.
But errors apart, I think this is a fluent and engaging account of Olivier's astonishing life.
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Prior to reading Philip Ziegler's biography, what I knew about Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was limited almost entirely to seeing several of the films in which he appeared, many of them for the first time on the AMC channel. They include Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice (both in 1940), The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth (1944), Richard III (1955), The Devil's Disciple (1959), The Merchant of Venice, The Entertainer and Spartacus (both in 1960), and Marathon Man (1976). I never saw him appear on stage but, of course, over the years read about his great triumphs, mostly on stages in Great Britain. I knew almost nothing about his personal life, other than the fact that he was married to Vivian Leigh (1940-1960) and later to Joan Plowright (from 1961 until his death of renal failure in 1989).

These are the questions I had in mind when beginning to read Ziegler's biography:

o By what process did he develop his extraordinary skills as an actor
o His favorite plays among those in which he appeared
o His favorite films among those in which he appeared
o Other prominent actors whom he admired most...and why
o What he was like to work with as a fellow actor
o What he was like to work with as a director
o Others with whom he most enjoyed working
o Others with whom he least enjoyed working
Note: John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson (and perhaps Kirk Douglas) would probably be on both lists for reasons that reveal more about Olivier than they do about them.

I am deeply grateful to Ziegler for all that I learned about Olivier's life and work insofar as these subjects are concerned. I am also grateful to him for what I learned about other dimensions of his life and work:

o His indifference to parenthood and neglect of his four children
o Why he was dismissed by the Old Vic theatre company
o His up-and-down, down-and-up relationship with the National Theatre
o Why two of his marriages failed but the third succeeded
o His inability to delegate authority
o According to those who knew him best, what his defining characteristics were as an actor
o And as a person
o His stage fright and other anxieties and insecurities
o The personal relationships he cherished most
o His struggles with Leigh's bi-polar temperament and behavior
o Olivier's sexuality
o His extravagant praise and scathing criticism, often during the same conversation
o In later years, his health issues and how he dealt with them

The title of this review is explained by the fact that, as I re-read this book prior to setting to work on this review of it, I was again reminded of Walt Whitman's declaration in "Song of Myself": "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." The same can be said of Laurence Olivier both on and off the stage as well as on and off the screen.

I agree with John Simon's concluding comments in his review in The New York Times: "The biography is full of marvelous anecdotes; traces sovereignly the rivalries with Richardson, Gielgud, and Olivier's successor at the National, Peter Hall; and avoids the salacious. It is altogether a thorough and intelligent book." Presumably most of those who read it will agree with Simon. My only regret is that I never had the opportunity to see Olivier perform on stage but at least several of his best films remain. I shall revisit a few soon, probably Henry V first.
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on 14 September 2016
Seems to be a lot of conflicting opinions in the reviews and folks got lots of different things out of it. I've read several Olivier bios and had just come straight from reading Vivien Leigh by Anne Edwards which I thought very good very insightful of her relationship with Olivier. That's why I went straight to this book.

I was disappointed that it didn't, for me anyway, really go into details about his relationships with all 3 wives, particularly Joan Plowright. She was barely mentioned around the time of his death.

I found it a bit heavy going on the theatre minutae and the conflicts between everyone seemingly. I would also like to have known more about his illness and how lived in those last few years. It says he and Plowright were basically living separate lives for the last 10 years before his death so I'd liked to have found out more about that.

It gives a reasonably well balanced character analysis, giving example of his jealousy (professional that is) not just of his contemporaries but even of his wives' careers. Explosive temper, his approach to becoming a character, his distance from his eldest son, his very cutting insults, his very luvvie language and effusive compliments, his physicality, his stubborness but also his drive to become more modern and move with the times (both of these often very much in conflict with other actors/directors of the Old Vic / National Theatre.

There is no question about his deserved stature as our best stage actor to date and that he was rather snobbish and condescending about movies. There were alleged affairs and he apparantly expected to bed his leading ladies but no-one other than Sarah Miles was named and even she was glossed over. I'd have liked more details of this and also how these affairs affected his marriages.

So I'd give it a 3.5 rather than 3 or 4 and if anyone wants to learn more about the softer side of him, I'd read the Vivien Leigh bio by Anne Edwards. That makes more sense of him leaving Vivien Leigh for several reasons. Of course it concludes with Leigh's death so you'll learn no more about Olivier from 1967.

It has left me wanting to know more detail about his personal life and the man himself (who the book says didn't even know himself)! So I'm left rather unsatisfied on that count.
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on 2 January 2014
Comprehensive view of Olivier and his contribution to the theatre and film of his period. A very useful over-view of differing dramatic styles and skills and the development of the theatre in thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, especially the development of the National Theatre. Interesting and readable portrait of Olivier and his fellow actors.
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