LAURENCE OLIVIER: A Biography by Anthony Holden

LAURENCE OLIVIER: A Biography

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Though journalist Holden (Prince Charles, The Queen Mother) has done some interviews of his own, there's no significant new material in this long, dullish, competent biography of Sir Larry. Amalgamating data and anecdotes from the already-groaning Olivier shelf (bios, memoirs, Kenneth Tynan profiles, interview-collections, several Vivien Leigh bios, Peter Finch bios, the Peter Hall diaries, etc., etc.), Holden retells the familiar story--with a snide, patronizing edge that's far from engaging. The pop-psych clichÉs of Olivier-watching are all here: ""No one has ever truly known him, least of all himself."" His mother's early death left him desperate for affection: a show-offy flirt. His cleric-father's intensity left him with a ""crippling propensity for guilt."" So this is primarily a tale of ""opportunism"" and ""unquenchable ambition""--as L.O. goes from early stage success (Private Lives) to failure in Hollywood; from his rebirth in Shakespeare (Gielgud's Romeo and Juliet) to movie-stardom, film direction (Henry V), and co-management of the glorious 1940's Old Vic with Ralph Richardson. Wife #1, Jill Esmond, was ""ruthlessly used"" as a steppingstone; there was ""uncontrollable mutual passion"" with Vivien Leigh--but he used her, too: ""Olivier had drawn his colour from Vivien for so long that it had left her a pale shadow of the woman who had once overwhelmed him."" Later, when she sank into manic-depression, he was selfishly inconsiderate: ""Would a loving husband, oblivious to his own personal ambitions, really have wanted the Vivien of 1955 to risk playing Lady Macbeth's madness scene?"" And so on: Holden sees all of Olivier's actions--his embrace of anti-Establishment drama, his ferocious work-rate (""his need to escape from himself and from reality""), his National Theatre rise-and-fall--in the worst possible light. As a personal portrait, then, this is derivative at best, idly speculative at worst--with surprisingly little detail on Lord O.'s happy family life with Joan Plowright. And there are far better evocations elsewhere--in Tynan, John Cottrell's Laurence Olivier, etc.--of the Olivier achievements. However, for readers who want an up-to-date reference, or an antidote to the wily charm of Confessions of an Actor, Holden's hard-working assemblage--packed with facts and quotes and anecdotal details--is serviceably comprehensive.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1988
Publisher: Atheneum