‘Some of you may have seen him’: Laurence Olivier’s Celebrity

  • Peter Holland


Early in John McTiernan’s film Last Action Hero (1993), young Danny Madigan, bored at school, is made to watch a clip from Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), which is not exactly the kind of movie he enjoys, his mind, as always, fixed on his hero Jack Slater, the star of a sequence of action films he excitedly follows. Danny’s teacher tries her best: ‘Treachery, conspiracy, sex, swordfights, madness, ghosts. And in the end everybody dies. Shakespeare’s Hamlet couldn’t be more exciting.’1 But her pedagogically odd choice of film version to engage her class — why not Zeffirelli’s then recent 1990 version with Mel Gibson?2 — is of course underpinned by the popular cultural assumption that the Olivier film represents the tradition of Hamlet, Shakespeare as high-cultural object, the dyed-blond Olivier as the central figure of the great line of theatrical Hamlets, the apotheosis of everything against which the action movie is set.


National Theatre Artistic Director Cigarette Brand Celebrity Status Memorial Service 
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  1. 1.
    My quotations from the film are taken from Eric S. Mallin’s fine article, ’ “You Kilt My Foddah”: or Arnold, Prince of Denmark’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 50 (1999), 127–51 (p. 127).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Of course, the question makes no real sense in the context of film-production: McTiernan has no access to such a recent clip.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See Garry O’Connor’s ‘Introduction’ to his Olivier: In Celebration (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1987), pp. 12–18.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Simon Callow, ‘Laurence Olivier and My Generation’ in Garry O’Connor, Olivier: In Celebration, p. 97.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    For example, Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) or Roger Lewis, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (London: Century Books, 1996).Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    For example, Robert L. Daniels, Laurence Olivier: Theatre and Cinema (London: The Tantivy Press, 1980); Jerry Vermilye, The Complete Films of Laurence Olivier (New York: Citadel Press, 1992); Margaret Morley, The Films of Laurence Olivier (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1977). All three of these give ostensibly complete accounts of Olivier’s television work. Only Robert Tanitch notes, at the foot of his television listings, that ‘In 1972 Olivier made a series of commercials for Polaroid’ (see Robert Tanitch, Olivier: The Complete Career (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985), p. 185.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Tarquin Olivier, My Father Laurence Olivier (London: Headline Book Publishing, 1992); Richard Olivier, Melting the Stone: A Journey Around My Father (Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1996). The latter is, incidentally, the oddest Olivier biography I have read with a lengthy bibliography including Robert Bly, Alvin Toffler and W. B. Yeats but not a single book by or about Laurence Olivier.Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    A dull publicity photograph is reproduced in Garry O’Connor, Olivier: In Celebration, following p. 128.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Ian McKellen, ‘Smoke Signals’, Flaunt, December 2002. [accessed September 2004].
  10. 23.
    See Penny Tinkler, “Red Tips for Hot Lips”: Advertising Cigarettes for Young Women in Britain, 1920–70’, Womens History Review, 10 (2001), 249–72 (p. 262).Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    The title of Richard Olivier’s biography tries unsuccessfully to work off Mortimer’s title of his play about his own father.Google Scholar
  12. 26.
    The film has no sound-track other than Olivier’s reading of the poem and the playing of Britten’s own recording of his War Requiem. Google Scholar
  13. 27.
    Quoted by Michael Billington, ‘Lasciviously Pleasing’, in O’Connor, Olivier: In Celebration, pp. 71–5 (p. 71).Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    Jonathan Miller, the director of The Merchant of Venice, had to work hard to persuade Olivier to remove ‘rather a lot of encrustations’ of directorial ideas as well as make-up ‘before I could find the clean lines of the play’. The ‘enormous amount of make-up’ included ‘false nose, ringlets, a Disraeli beard’, the ‘pantomime trappings’ which embarrassed Miller as a Jew. See Miller, ‘Aboard the Victory 0’, in O’Connor, Laurence Olivier: In Celebration, pp. 125–9 (pp. 126–7).Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    Olivier’s autobiography is repeatedly and characteristically coy in its hints about his homosexuality; Spoto is equally characteristically forthright and refers frequently to an earlier draft of the autobiography which ‘frankly admitted the numerous homosexual episodes of his adult life’ (e.g., p. 230), while Tarquin Olivier quotes his father saying ‘I’ve never been queer’ (see Olivier, My Father Laurence Olivier, p. 256).Google Scholar
  16. 33.
    Richard Olivier is memorably funny on his curious action of sending Dustin Hoffman, then playing Shylock, the false teeth that Olivier had worn in the role: ‘I never heard from him — I’m not surprised’ (See Olivier, Melting the Stone, p. 28).Google Scholar
  17. 34.
    Olivier, Confessions of an Actor, p. 229. Olivier follows this passage with a comment that ‘one has often heard that the most magnificent specimens of boxers, wrestlers, and champions in almost every branch of athletic sport prove to be disappointing upon the removal of that revered jockstrap’ (p. 229)! Olivier’s coy prose with that distancing ‘one’ produces here the strange revelation that the ‘jockstrap’ is ‘revered’ without beginning to explain by whom or why.Google Scholar
  18. 36.
    Compare, in an earlier incarnation, the extent to which Vivien Leigh could be identified simply as one half of ‘the Oliviers’ in the title of the first significant biography of Laurence Olivier, Francis Barker’s The Oliviers: A Biography (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1953).Google Scholar
  19. 37.
    Virginia Fairweather, Olivier: An Informal Portrait (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1969), p. 54.Google Scholar
  20. 39.
    Interview with John Osborne in Olivier, ed. Logan Gourlay (New York: Stein and Day, 1975), pp. 145–56 (p. 148).Google Scholar
  21. 56.
    I take this list as a selection from Tanitch’s tabulation of ‘Awards and Honours’. See Tanitch, Olivier, pp. 188–9.Google Scholar
  22. 57. [accessed September 2004].
  23. 58. [accessed September 2004].
  24. 59. [accessed September 2004].
  25. 60. [accessed September 2004].

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© Peter Holland 2005

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  • Peter Holland

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