Friday, 22 October 2010

Faustian Pact

Who was - arguably - the finest actor of the 20th century? Was he Laurence Olivier? If so, why was he the finest actor of the time? Why, when in character, did he outshine all his illustrious contemporaries? Was it simply a matter of innate superior skill, or was there something more sinister going on behind the scenes?

From Hamlet to Archie Rice, from Heathcliffe to Der Weisse Engel, something in those eyes... something in those dead eyes seemed to come alive when he took on a role. People talk about actors 'inhabiting a character', but it seems that - in Olivier's case - the character inhabited him.

It is said that he utterly destroyed his ego for the sake of his art. Having emptied himself so many times and so thoroughly, in order to take on a persona so large that there was not room enough in one body to accommodate both him and the spirit he was contractually obliged to vacate for, that - sometime during his early career - he hid himself in a place so safe, that he was never found again.

I have only just forgiven Kenneth Branagh for allowing his agent to put him forward as the successor to Olivier, following his (Olivier's) death, and I daresay that Branagh has only just forgiven the agent too. At least Branagh had the good sense to take on a role which took the personal piss out of him in a Harry Potter film, and he took it on with good grace.

We all like to be considered committed to our jobs, but very few of us civilians actually die for them, which Laurence Oliver did every time he went back to the dressing room or hotel.

Break a leg.


  1. An interesting theory. In the same ilk as the depressive comedian. I wonder what the sportsworld/footballer/Rooney equivalent is?

  2. Some people are very driven like that. It's insane, but admirable in a certain way. My mother saw him in the stage version of Hamlet, and she said it was spectacular. I love him in Wuthering Heights, but there is that one film with Michael Caine—love that.

  3. I am not a lover of the "great one".... and I found it interesting that you used the phrase "dead eyed" because that is exactly what I thought about him.....rather dead....To me, when he acted ( and he acted very well) it always LOOKED as though he was acting......
    which kind of put me off him.....

    in many ways cinema never really knew what to do with him!

  4. Depressive ventriloquists are even more scary, Cro.

    I remember him with Dustin Hoffman, but not Michael Caine, Amy. What was it called?

    I know what you mean, John, but there again, all his contemporaries did the same thing. It was a different language which was all but destroyed by American 'Method Acting'. Remember when some Hollywood star was agonizing on set about how to portray a particular role, and holding everyone up by virtually wanking in public, and John Gielgud (I think) said, "Why don't you try acting, dear boy?"

  5. It's a frightening thought that you could loose yourself permanently for the sake of your work, but there is something deliciously satisfying about watching a performance that is authentic.
    Wasn't it Truman Capote who said that his old pal Larry was one of the stupidest people he had ever met!