When Laurence Olivier received his honorary Oscar from the Academy in 1979, several well-known Hollywood superstars were in tears by the time he was halfway through his speech, and there is no doubt whatever that they thought of him as a genius of both stage and screen. Yet Hollywood was never certain quite what to do with him. Whether he was too good for them, or simply did not fit into their conception of what a Hollywood star should be, is a moot point.
It wasn’t until some years later that he was accepted as a major talent. Before that, there were several fiascos which culminated with Greta Garbo refusing to accept him as her leading man in Queen Christina. He was, she said, too cold.
It was really in William Wyler’s powerful version of Wuthering Heights that he came fully into his own. His Heathcliff in that film was blazingly romantic enough even for Garbo, who was apparently amazed if only as a spectator. Later, Hitchcock made him Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, which became one of his most successful American films.
His performances in Pride and Prejudice and in That Hamilton Woman (as Nelson) were also considered great successes. But even then there was a doubt. He never meant much to the American cinema-going public until much later in the autumn of his career.
His greatest period in the cinema, however, came in the immediate post-war years when he directed, produced and acted in Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. He looked like a great actor at last in all of these films, and his direction of them almost made Shakespeare popular with the masses. He won a special Academy Award for Henry V and Hamlet won the Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars for him. He has since been nominated for Oscars nine times – a measure of the respect with which he eventually came to be held by some of the same Hollywood people who once doubted him.
He hated acting with, and directing, Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl, finding her thoroughly aggravating and unprofessional. But in 1960, he was fully at ease in the film version of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, and contributed a remarkable performance as Archie Rice.
There was exceptional screen acting too in Term of Trial and Uncle Vanya, although the film of his stage production of Othello with the National Theatre was less successful.
By this time, however, everyone was vying with each other to have him play a character part in their films, and he took the chance to make some fairly easy money in a succession of sometimes unworthy roles. But he was pretty good in Sleuth, Marathon Man and even The Boys From Brazil, and most of the time any lacks in his other films could be attributed either to semi-literate scripts or to directors too admiring of him to say anything but “Wonderful!” on each take.
Perhaps he was only rarely as great an actor on the screen as he was on stage. But that is where we will see him most henceforward. We may also begin to appreciate his powers as a director more thoroughly. He had an unerring eye for both screenplays and the acting of them, and a visual sense that, in Henry V at least, matched the very best of the British cinema.
From the Guardian archive, 12 July 1989