Confessions of an Actor 
by Laurence Olivier.
Weidenfeld, 305 pp., £9.95, October 1982, 0 297 78106 5
Show More
Show More

Confessions of an Actor is, unsurprisingly, more an impersonation than a real piece of writing. In it, Laurence Olivier acts writing – an uneasy mixture of the chatty (‘All right, I can hear you, reader dear’) and the belle-lettrist flourish (‘Fortunately for the restoration of my depleted coffers ... ’). What good bits of writing there are (not many) stem equally from Olivier’s métier: as when, for instance, he arrives in Hollywood to help the mad Vivien Leigh. ‘I said, “Hello, darling,” and when she spoke to me it was in the tone of halting dreamlike amazement that people in the theatre use for mad scenes when they can’t think of anything better. My instinctive reaction was that she was putting it on.’ She wasn’t. Soon she had to be sedated: ‘To my horror I saw that the nurse was enjoying it; she was waggling the syringe and there was a glint in her eye. But there was no time for anything; Danny Kaye and I threw ourselves on top of Vivien and held her down. Vivien fought us with the utmost ferocity as the needle went in, biting and scratching Danny and me, screaming appalling abuse at both of us, with particular attention to my erotic impulses ... ’ There is a professional, unadorned quality of observation here that survives the sentence’s limp end: ‘it seemed an eternity before she went limp and Danny and I were able to let her go, both shattered and exhausted.’ The whole incident shows us not only the distraught husband but also the observant actor. Indeed, in Olivier’s life, the professional, for the most part, took priority over the personal: ‘I have always believed that if you aspire to be an artist you must be prepared to make such personal sacrifices as separation readily, if not exactly cheerfully. It’s tough but it’s right.’

This suppression of self is even invoked to explain Olivier’s early sexual failure: ‘In the first years of Vivien’s theatre-acting there was not the passion, the flare, the flame necessary to set the stage alight. It was therefore hard to make her understand, at those times when she was sadly disappointed in the results of my intimate passionate endeavours, that all that had gone into my acting ... ’ One is reminded of Balzac complaining to one of the Goncourt brothers that he had ‘lost a book this morning’ because ‘sperm for him was an emission of cerebral matter and as it were a waste of creative power.’ This theory, shared with Balzac, that ‘you can’t be more than one kind of athlete at a time’, is surely undermined by Olivier’s later sexual prowess – the result of a few sympathetic, extra-marital affairs which cured his tendency to premature ejaculation. This, however, isn’t the only contradictory theorising in the book.

The real truth, in so for as one can glean it, is that for many years Olivier wasn’t simply suppressing himself. There was no one there in the first place. For such an acclaimed somebody, these memoirs often read like the Diary of a Nobody. This is partly because, anxious not to appear boastful, he invariably presents himself in an ironical light – anything not to be known, as he was at school, as ‘that sidey little shit Olivier’. But it is also because one detects that, without a role to play, Olivier suspected that there wasn’t much there. He dislikes surprisingly few people and most of those are dead. His opinions strike one as largely borrowed: on homosexuality, for instance, he is conventionally liberal (‘It would be dreadfully wrong if any of this should be taken to imply that I ever found anything in the remotest way unrespectable about homosexuality’) and yet it is clear he finds the subject deeply disturbing. ‘I felt that the homosexual act would be a step darkly destructive to my soul.’ Plainly, the liberal attitude is a later graft. Compare, too, his attitude to the General Strike: ‘I have been told constantly in the last few years that I was on the wrong side and should be ashamed of myself.’

The first chapter strikes an authentically Pooterish note with its description of genteel poverty – a childhood of shared baths, rationed lavatory paper and diaphanous slices of meat. With a background like that, the young Olivier would hardly side with the workers. And, apart from his natural gifts, you can see that the attraction of the acting profession was partly social: ‘From my own resources, I had to have full evening dress, full morning dress and a short black coat, plus-fours, sports jacket and blazer with grey and white flannels, dressing-gowns and night attire, as well as suitable socks, shirts, shoes, collars and ties.’ The world Olivier was aiming for was the aristocracy – or rather the pseudo-aristocracy that the stage might provide. Later, in New York, at a time of financial stringency, ‘it was natural for the two of us to stay at the St Regis; it would have been misunderstood if we had sought somewhere more economical.’ All his life, Olivier appears to have taken his colour from his surroundings. Fortunately, in the latter half of his life, his surroundings improved – less of Noel Coward’s chic, as it were, and more of George Devine’s scruff. The glamorous world at which he had originally aimed didn’t really suit him anyway. When he has supper with Winston Churchill, the occasion is one of Pooterish maladroitness:

As we three turned to seat ourselves again, I fancied I caught a glimpse of ancient Harrow days as he declared in youthful enthusiasm his appreciation of Vivien: ‘By Jove,’ he said, ‘by Jove, she’s a clinker!’ He pushed the whisky decanter towards me and, with a slight flutter of dismay at mixing drinks so much, I obediently helped myself: what the hell, I thought, we’re not only young once. I pushed it on to Soames and reached for the water. Soames passed the decanter to Winston who helped himself and as he reached for the soda syphon, again impelled to that ghastly self-conscious banter, I said: ‘Excuse me, sir, but have you ever tried plain water with it? I believe it to be the soda that crawls up the back of our necks the next morning.’

I prefer the Olivier on all-fours in Moscow being coaxed into bed by his third wife, Joan Plowright. Or even the Olivier who tends to avoid glittering parties because they make him pass out. Either seems more natural to him.

This relatively recently induced naturalness has some bearing on Olivier the performer. He isn’t a great theorist:

At that time, stage-acting and film-acting were thought of as two entirely different crafts, even professions. We know now that this is not by any means a true assessment; the truth is infinitely subtler. They call for the same ingredients but in different proportions. The precise differences may take some years of puzzling work to appreciate; in each case there are many subtle variations according to the character of the actor.

Thanks very much. That’s a great help. Nevertheless, Olivier manages, despite a dangerous amount of unchronological free association, to tell us a great deal about his acting career and its curious shape. I’d pick out three significant moments: his first audition, a remark made by Tyrone Guthrie, and his stage-fright which lasted from October 1964 until April 1970. My emphases, though, are different from Olivier’s. Confessions of an Actor is a quarry where you do your own spade-work.

Olivier’s rationalisation of his profession is endearing and unpretentious: ‘The more intelligent of my young colleagues, in ceaseless talks pathetically seeking some rationalisation of our lives, agree that their choice of métier was to satisfy an urgent need to “express themselves”. When my turn comes I cannot boast that degree of intellectuality; in honesty I have to confess, rather shamefacedly, that I was not conscious of any other need than to show off.’ While it is true that, initially, Olivier had no desire to express himself, it isn’t quite enough to say of himself that he wanted to show off. It was more complicated. When he applied for a scholarship and bursary at the Central School of Drama, Elsie Fogerty placed her finger in the deep hollow where Olivier’s brow met his nose: ‘You have a weakness ... here.’ True or not, the young actor believed her and afterwards resorted, whenever possible, to nose putty. But it is Olivier’s casual, throwaway conclusion which is significant: nose putty allowed him the ‘relief of an alien character’ and enabled him ‘to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation’. Far from wanting to ‘show off’ in any uncomplicated sense, Olivier wanted to hide himself. In a world of Noel Cowards and Gertrude Lawrences, the carapace was all – glittering, hard and protective. There are a number of photographs in this book which show Olivier purloining the moustache of Ronald Coleman and the tidal quiff of Clark Gable. Handsome, yes. Real, absolutely not. At any rate, a million miles away from ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, where the Pooters lived.

The good thing to emerge out of this, from the acting point of view, was Olivier’s uncanny gift for physical mimicry. Being a nobody meant he could be a great number of people – potentially, at any rate, though his aim seems to have been the matinee idol, a star. One imagines, however, that, in another way, this ontological insecurity hampered him as an actor. At least, this seems a plausible inference from the Tyrone Guthrie incident in 1945-6. Olivier was playing Sergius in Arms and the Man, while Ralph Richardson played Bluntschli, the larger part, and gained better notices. Olivier was feeling frankly miffed. Guthrie asked him if he didn’t love Sergius? ‘Love that stooge? That inconsiderable ... ’ Olivier returned, incredulously. Guthrie then said ‘something which changed the course of my actor’s thinking for the rest of my life. “Well, of course, if you can’t love him you’ll never be any good in him, will you?”’

For Olivier, the significance of Guthrie’s remark is that characters must be played from the inside. But it had a deeper effect on his psychology than even Olivier realised. It marks, I believe, the moment when Olivier subconsciously grasped that acting was more than playing the star roles – in which he could show off as someone else more glamorous than himself. Somehow, Guthrie had implanted the notion that successful acting involved the nobody within – that stooge, that inconsiderable, that Pooterish ...

Olivier’s theories about the use of self in acting are, as one would expect, contradictory. On the one hand:

The theatre is replete with emotional legends; it is not surprising that those playing Romeo and Juliet are supposed to present a more stirring partnership if they develop the same passion between themselves as that which they are emulating; some believe that Shakespeare’s magic depends on it. After long reflection, I must point out that this is a dangerous notion. It would imply that actual death is necessary to the feigning of it, or at least that physical pain is necessary to give a successful impression of it. Such an idea robs the work of its artfulness as well as its artistry. It is a tempting belief, but a bad principle.

Forty-two pages on, however, Olivier tells us: ‘It is, as has been said, next to impossible to produce the effect of great suffering without the actor enduring some degree of it.’ Olivier’s greatness as an actor is inherent in this contradiction: he is a superb technician, a great mimic, and he has learned to put himself into his roles. Particularly, one guesses, those bits of his personality which slightly shame him.

This, I take it, is the real explanation for his six-year period of stage fright – of terror, as he puts it. The cause was the embarrassment of ‘self-representation’, and began with Othello – reasonably enough, since Vivien Leigh had given him ample experience of jealousy and of the chasm between public acclaim and private failure. Olivier was, in a sense, playing himself and took refuge, therefore, in what later became his most famous disguise. Despite stupendous make-up, a new voice and a new walk, Olivier was so afraid of being left alone with the audience during the soliloquies that Frank Finlay (Iago) stayed in the wings where Olivier could see him. Yet, after the early years of massive putty jobs, he had learned by 1949 that a tiny change could provide a disguise: ‘I hit on the practical notion that ... by changing one feature one can create a whole new face.’ By the time he was playing Shylock for Jonathan Miller, his only protection was a set of specially-made teeth (in the still, oddly enough, he looks like a handsome version of Ken Tynan on the facing page). Miller had persuaded him to jettison a more complicated Jewish make-up that was based on George Arliss’s Disraeli. In the course of playing The Merchant, virtually naked, as it were, Olivier found himself cured – though, initially, his terror was so strong he asked the cast not to look him in the eyes.

The terror was real enough, but like many another phobia somehow vague – and one seizes on the few details, like the eye-contact, for a kind of explanation. Might it not be that Olivier was, contrary to his stated belief, putting so much of himself on view that he felt at once threatened by the audience and his fellow actors? At any rate, it is striking that, after The Merchant, Olivier overcame a lifetime’s reluctance and played James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night: ‘It was not that I felt inadequate for this role, it was too clearly within my compass; but I had always felt a strong resistance to playing an actor.’ Why? The reason Olivier gives is that the part lent itself to stereotype. But I’d guess that the real reason had always been Olivier’s reluctance to play himself, the actor. Now, at last, he was prepared to risk himself.

Certainly, in Olivier’s personal life, one sees a parallel endeavour to be increasingly frank. Which is why, despite its failures, one comes to admire this brave book. Disclosure follows disclosure – from amorous inefficiency to a haemorrhoidectomy (‘too charming’). His personal vanity comes in for criticism, too: ‘I grow a moustache partly to hide the scar which has formed two other creases one on each side, but, more secretly, to draw attention away from the displeasingly thin hard line of my upper labium, inherited from my father.’ Coshed by a burglar, he reports: ‘In phoning the police I was guilty of some over-dramatics.’ His third wife, Joan Plowright, is partly responsible for this scrupulosity, if one can judge from a letter reprinted here. She is obviously an actress who knows the value of the truth in her profession: ‘I remember you saying about Brenda de B. that she “tries to cry” on stage, whereas in real life one tries to stop crying. I think maybe you are trying to believe Cassio’s kisses have been on her lips, instead of trying to stop yourself believing.’ What a wonderful wife. How crucial she must have been in saving Olivier from the person he was set on being, we can gauge from this telling aside:

I had eyes for no one but Joan, whose smile at this first meeting had more than a hint of mockery about it; I divined that I stood for everything that the young generation at the Royal Court would find most objectionable ... I was titled, necessarily self-satisfied, pompous, patronising, having obviously come to visit in a spirit of condescension – I could see it all. It preyed on my mind ...

Archie Rice, Osborne’s great nobody, followed shortly after and Olivier was reborn as an actor.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences