LAURENCE OLIVIER: A Biography by Donald Spoto


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Despite having conducted dozens of interviews with those who knew Olivier, Spoto (author of biographies of Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, and others) offers little important new material--and few fresh insights--in this long, uninspired biography. Aside from lots of sexual tattle, much of it unsupported by sources, and an unconvincing minority opinion on Vivien Leigh's mental troubles, most everything here has been covered before (and, often, better) elsewhere. Like Anthony Holden (Laurence Olivier, 1988), Spoto takes a largely unfriendly view of Sir Larry--seen throughout as primarily ambitious, envious, ungrateful (to Gielgud especially), and ""emotionally inaccessible."" Also like Holden, Spoto emphasizes Olivier's guilt-ridden nature; unlike Holden, though, Spoto links it to a struggle with bisexuality, supposedly evidenced by a ten-year affair with Danny Kaye (cf. Michael Korda's recent roman à clef) and quasi-sexual attachments to Noel Coward, Kenneth Tynan, and others. As for women, there were brief encounters (Greet Garson, Sarah Miles, Claire Bloom, etc.) and three unhappy marriages; in Spoto's iffy version, Joan Plowright is an uncaring opportunist, Vivien Leigh a self-indulgent sensualist (rather than a manic-depressive). And his interpretation of Olivier's amazing career and art is only slightly more persuasive: the stage and film work, the rise and fall at the National Theatre, all receive conscientious attention--but Spoto's attempts at analyzing the Olivier genius largely slide into psychobabble and platitude: ""This awareness of inadequacy was suffused by a mysterious gift, enabling him to pass the single beam of his own humanity through the prism of a role--and the emerging, manifold ray reached the countless different lives of his spectators."" Sure to be read for the gossip, and worth skimming for curious bits of interview material, but--with its flat delivery and spotty documentation--an only so-so addition to the crowded Olivier reference room.

Pub Date: March 11th, 1992
Page count: 600pp
Publisher: HarperCollins