Video: Video Finds: Actors — He That Plays the King |
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Video Finds: Actors — He That Plays the King

Laurence Olivier, 1907 – 1989

Laurence Olivier was a king actor. Orson Welles once said that some actors must play the king even if they don’t do it well. Olivier did it better than anybody, to the extent that his reputation, when it was attacked, was always attacked on the basis of his dominance: the very quality that made him regal. A great film director in his own right, he showcased himself brilliantly as Richard III (1955). The “winter of our discontent” speech is really about a glorious summer, and must be delivered exultantly. Olivier spoke the lines with a kind of ecstasy, which expressed itself in the vaulting precision of his diction: hear how he fills out the pentameter with those very syllables that other actors suppress when they try to make the speech less rhetorical. Always on the move even when standing still, the crook-backed pretender woos the camera as he will shortly afterwards woo Lady Anne, and with the same frightening success. The director knew just how to frame the actor. The same applied to his Hamlet (1948), so adventurously directed that the young Roman Polanski saw it twenty times, memorising a catalogue of every shot. To stave off the general notion that Olivier hogged the camera, notice how much of the graveyard scene is shot over the star’s shoulder to favour the gravedigger’s face, and try to imagine any other actor-director being so generous, even to Stanley Holloway. The puzzle with Olivier’s “Crispin’s Day” speech in Henry V (1944) is to figure out where the microphone is. Unfortunately the YouTube clip omits the final vault on to the horse, the clinching moment when the director caps the actor’s vocal aria with silent action. But the mere words are still a study. (When he invokes “the ending of the world” it actually sounds like the ending of the world.) Again, the speech is delivered on the move, to match the dynamics of the verse. (When he spoke in an extended close-up, it was always to catch the vitality of his face.) Near the end of his career, old and frail, Olivier capitalised on infirmity to play his greatest king of all: a King Lear to match the combined brilliance of its cast. Directed by Michael Elliott for Granada, it remains, to this day, the acme of all television Shakespeare productions. In the excerpt here, when Lear grows desperate as “the night comes on”, listen to how he sings the line “I give you…all.” He hadn’t run out of breath yet, but he was running out of life. Typical of him to act the part.

Watch Laurence Olivier as Henry V (1944), Act 4, Scene 3 : The St. Crispin's Day Speech
Watch Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (1948), Act 3, Scene 1 : “To Be or Not To Be”
Watch Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (1948), Act 5, Scene 1 : “Alas, poor Yorick”
Watch Laurence Olivier as Richard III (1955), Act 1 Scene 1 : “Now is the Winter of Our Discontent”
Watch Laurence Olivier as King Lear (Michael Elliott, Granada 1983) Act 1 Scene 1
Watch Laurence Olivier as King Lear (Michael Elliott, Granada 1983) Act 1 Scene 4