Laurence Olivier and the Anemic Little Medium


To view our theme “Icons: Laurence Olivier” click here.

In the last years of his life, Laurence Olivier was lauded as the world’s greatest actor in print interviews, on talk shows and during presentations for the numerous honorary awards he received. His experience as a classically trained thespian and his repute as an interpreter of Shakespeare generated the persona of an important actor. His stint as the director of London’s National Theatre made him synonymous with the British stage.

Subsequent appraisals of his acting have been less laudatory, with some noting his tendency to overplay. He preferred playing colorful characters that allowed him to indulge his love of mime, accents and makeup, which contributed to less-than-subtle portrayals. Olivier seemed to have a contrary relationship with the movies. He liked the recognition and attention, but he did not think the movies challenged him, noting in his autobiography, “Films and television do not usually tax one’s energies beyond their normal capacities.”

FilmStruck is currently offering 17 films starring Olivier for your streaming pleasure. The films are curated under the “Icons” theme, which befits his legendary status.

Talent aside, Olivier could be difficult on the set, conceited about his abilities and stubborn about his interpretation of characters. In researching Wuthering Heights(1939), which I wrote about last week, I came across several references to his on-set behavior as well as opinions about him from his contemporaries. I thought I would share these opinions and quotes with you. I do not want to poke holes in Olivier’s reputation, or cast aspersions on his work. Sometimes, it is just fun to look behind the icon to find the artist and the man.


Some of the films included in this series represent Olivier’s earliest work in cinema. Perfect Understanding (1933), which was his fifth feature film, costarred Gloria Swanson. Hmmm! Swanson and Olivier: I don’t think I could name a least likely romantic pairing. Shot in England by Swanson’s production company, Perfect Understanding was distributed in America by United Artists. Swanson and Olivier play a couple whose marriage is shaken by his infidelity. Olivier called the film “a misnomer if there ever was one,” but Swanson did not feel that way. Years later, she could not recall the quality of his performance, but she did remember that she thought his “looks positively blinding.”

Wuthering Heights was Olivier’s return to Hollywood after a less-than-successful attempt to break into American movies earlier in the decade. Whether he was arrogant because he had just completed a highly praised run as Hamlet, or whether he was prickly about Garbo’s rejection of him as her leading man in 1933, Olivier seemed intent on rubbing everyone the wrong way. When director William Wyler chided him for his too-broad gestures and stage-style approach, he shouted, “I suppose this anemic little medium can’t take great acting.” Wyler and the crew broke down laughing, and he was dutifully embarrassed by his pomposity.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn did not care that Olivier had been acclaimed in Hamlet. Upset that Olivier was made up to look like a dirty stable boy, Goldwyn was specifically angry about the makeup but discontented about the actor and the film overall. He shouted on set, with Olivier in earshot: “Will you look at his ugly face? He’s dirty. His performance is rotten! It’s stagy! It’s just nothing. Not real for a moment. I won’t have it, and if he doesn’t improve, I’m gonna close up the picture.” Fortunately, with Wyler’s direction, Olivier did improve enormously.

Olivier had wanted his future wife, Vivien Leigh, to play opposite him in Wuthering Heights, but she was cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Thus, Leigh and Olivier began a long professional relationship with GWTW producer David O. Selznick. Selznick cast Olivier as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940) after his ideal choice, Ronald Colman, was not available. He also considered William Powell, who wanted the role desperately, but he would have cost $100,000 more than Olivier, and Selznick would need to secure MGM’s consent.

As production got underway, Selznick grew concerned over Olivier’s performance. Like Goldwyn, he thought the actor’s performance was too influenced by his stage experience. In a panic, he penned one of his famous memos to director Alfred Hitchcock: “Larry’s silent action and reactions become slower as his dialogue becomes faster. . . His pauses and spacing in the scene with the girl in which she tells him about the ball are the most ungodly slow and deliberate reactions I have ever seen. It is played as though he were deciding whether or not to run for president. . . .”


Olivier costarred with his second wife, Vivien Leigh, in three films, Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941); all three are available for streaming. Olivier and Leigh met and fell in love on the set of Fire Over England, leaving their respective spouses in the dust. Once together, they wanted to costar in more films. Olivier pressured his directors to cast Leigh as his romantic lead. He wanted her to play Cathy in Wuthering Heights, and both he and Leigh squeezed Selznick to cast her in Rebecca. Neither Selznick nor Hitchcock thought she was right for the role, and they kept their search for Olivier’s costar under wraps until Joan Fontaine was finally cast. As he wrote to Olivier, “. . . Vivien’s anxiety to play [the] role has, in my opinion, been . . . due to her desire to do a picture with you, which was best demonstrated by her complete disinterest in [the] part when I first mentioned it to her. . . .”

Some producers were enamored by the prospect of casting the real-life lovers in an onscreen romance. In 1941, Warner Bros. producer Wolfgang Reinhardt sent a memo to Hal Wallis declaring his hope that William Wyler would direct Horatio Hornblower: “He would certainly be able to do a wonderful job with Hornblower, especially if we should get Olivier and Leigh.” However, Reinhardt did not get his wish. Raoul Walsh would direct Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo in a version of Horatio Hornblower in 1951.


Olivier and Peck crossed paths 25 years later when they costarred in The Boys from Brazil (1978), which is also part of the streaming package. By that time, Olivier had been ousted from the National Theatre, and his stage career was essentially over. He seemed gripped with the idea that he might not be able to provide for his family, or afford his homes, so he worked constantly. Between 1970 and 1985, he appeared in 18 films. While many are forgettable, he managed to garner three Oscar nominations for Sleuth (1972), Marathon Man (1976) and The Boys from Brazil. The quantity of his output did not escape his peers; neither did the quality. Stewart Granger noted, “There have been times when I’ve been ashamed to take the money. But then I think of some of the movies that have given Olivier cash for his old age, and I don’t feel so bad.” Others considered his entire 60-year career and respected his commitment to his craft, as did Peter O’Toole when he proudly stated, “I’m flattered out of my trousers at being the next Olivier.”

Susan Doll


7 Responses Laurence Olivier and the Anemic Little Medium
Posted By Avery Sloan : April 10, 2017 3:12 am

This page crashes Windows 7 Firefox browser. I tried to open it at least 8 times and then used Opera OK.

Posted By Emgee : April 10, 2017 6:02 am

Many stage actors displayed the same disdain towards Hollywood; they liked the money but dispised the medium.

Vivien Leigh as Cathy would have been great, but in Rebecca?
I don’t see it.

Posted By Georg Stanford Brown : April 10, 2017 6:22 am

Wonderful scenes..

Georg Stanford Brown

Posted By swac44 : April 10, 2017 9:13 am

The Hornblower books are such a vivid depiction of life at sea in the Age of Sail, it’s a shame the Gregory Peck film is such a dud. The thought that Olivier might have had the chance to play the character just makes the film we got seem that much more of a disappointment.

I’ll watch pretty much anything with Olivier in it, he’s never boring, even when you know he’s pretty much phoning it in. And for every Inchon or The Betsy, there’s The Entertainer or Sleuth (OK, I didn’t do the math, but you get the idea).

Even finally got around to watching A Little Romance with Olivier as an aging pickpocket who helps a pair of teen lovers (including Diane Lane in her debut) get from Paris to Venice, and he’s absolutely delightful. Now if only John Badham’s 1979 Dracula had been a little more worthy of the talents of its cast…

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : April 10, 2017 3:52 pm

Vivien Leigh in “Rebecca”? No. But AS Rebecca (had Rebecca been more of an actual character instead of a presence/legend) oh, yeah…

Posted By Renee Leask : April 11, 2017 6:34 pm

Never got to see Olivier live, so his film and video performances are all I have. My favorites are The Entertainer (already mentioned) and Carrie with Jennifer Jones. He was pretty arrogant! But when he was good, he was very, very good.

Posted By tdraicer : April 17, 2017 12:14 am

>Subsequent appraisals of his acting have been less laudatory, with some noting his tendency to overplay

Not my subsequent appraisals. He never overplayed a role that would have been better underplayed, and his film and tv work contains a long record of brilliant performances, including such late career work as The Collection, A Little Romance, Brideshead Revisited, and A Voyage Round My Father. His Richard III remains the greatest performance of Shakespeare captured on film, and his Lear, if sometimes technically flawed, is probably the bravest performance ever filmed. Olivier certainly has equals (O’Toole was one). Imo, he has no superiors

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