|Roger Lewis On Olivier
||[Dec. 13th, 2007|12:17 pm]
Laurence Olivier has always bugged me- which is why I'm reading Roger Lewis's little book about him. Well, not reading, more like skimming. The reason he bugs me is because I've been hearing all my life that he's the greatest actor of the 20th century and I've never been able to see it and I wish I could. |
He didn't leave much behind. Not in terms of quality. He was in lots of films but few of them were good- and few of them offered him a starring role. The Shakespeare movies, Hitchcock's Rebecca, The Entertainer, Spartacus- these are the career highlights. And the Shakespeare performances are really just the record of big, fruity stage performances. That goes for The Entertainer too. He was good in Rebecca but Cary Grant would have been better and he was good in Spartacus but it's Ustinov you remember. He did quite a lot of TV in old age, but nothing wonderful. Did his cameo performance dominate Brideshead Revisited? No, it didn't. John Gielgud- another fruity, old stage actor- puts in a teeny-tiny appearance that's a lot more compelling.
Was he gay? Lewis doesn't think so.
I think there's enough evidence in the films and shows I listed earlier to showcase a career of great intensity in a bravura range of parts. Part of the problem is that some of his best performances (Carrie, The Beggar's Opera etc) are either in excellent films that flopped or in TV shows lost in the archives.
A great performance can't by itself make a film great, so I don't believe great actors are those necessarily those who've appeared in a list of masterpieces. The great movie actors are people we often are just as happy to see enlivening otherwise mediocre films--that's part of what makes them great. And in Olivier's case I'd personally rank all of his Shakespeare films as great (plus, how many great films did the other actor knights have under their belts?) or at least cinematically important and influential. Beyond that, three or four of his other films are Hollywood classics, a couple are underrated gems, and much of his TV work features great performances in dully-directed material. Had Olivier not given the theater first priority, he might have directed more films or appeared in more films by other auteurs, thus raising his great-film count. As it is, I don't think cinephiles would ever call him the greatest movie actor or star, but his legacy is substantial enough.
The other theatrical knights had patchy film careers too- with the exception of Guinness, who was always a proper film actor. His CV includes-
Kind Hearts and Coronets
The Lavender Hill Mob
The Lady Killers
The Bridge on the River Kwai
A pretty good collection of first rate and/or important movies.
And then there is his performance as George Smiley in
the BBC's Le Carre dramatisations.
It's a good CV, though it seems no better to me than Olivier's--three classic Ealing comedies, a Hollywood classic, a classic adaptation, a couple of good TV series, and Star Wars, a film that's probably more influential than great (and which has Guinness in a strictly supporting role). Then again, in many ways Guinness was the opposite of Olivier--a restrained and unobtrusive craftsman. Actually, I might add a few more films to Guinness's list, including Our Man in Havana, The Man in the White Suit, Last Holiday, Tunes of Glory, and The Horse's Mouth. None great perhaps, but definitely worthy of notice. (Criterion has put out Tunes and Mouth I think.) The 50s were probably Guinness's best period filmwise.
Yes, I limited myself to the four and five star movies. He did a lot of good work in not so good movies too. For example, his Charles I is the one compelling reason for seeing the turgid Brit-epic Cromwell