SIR LARRY: The Life of Laurence Olivier by Thomas Kiernan

SIR LARRY: The Life of Laurence Olivier

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Olivier may be the best all-around film/stage celebrity subject of our time--there's Hollywood, Vivien Leigh, Shakespeare, the National Theatre, and so much more--but not even Sir Larry's inherent fascination can rescue a biography as sloppily assembled, dubiously documented, and appallingly sketchy as this one. Well over half of the book seems to be in quotation marks--and most of the sources are anonymous. Moreover, the quoted gossipings and speculations are often rambling and contradictory, while Kiernan (The Roman Polanski Story, Jane) makes little attempt to connect or assess this haphazard data. And, though the Olivier/Leigh melodrama--already intensely familiar from Anne Edwards' Vivien Leigh and others--is trundled out in ineffective detail, the last twenty years of Olivier's life and work (which include the entire story of the National Theatre as well as many of the greatest Olivier performances) are brushed off in eleven pages. Only Olivier's earliest years, in fact, seem at all fairly represented by Kiernan's round-table approach: his moody childhood (devoted mother, rejecting minister father), his uncertain hubristic ambitions (second-rate matinee idol, hammy scene-stealer, inept movie actor)--these youthful restlessnesses respond moderately well to the unfocused cut-and-paste method here. But when Olivier's artistry and domestic problems grow more complex, Kiernan's lack of theatrical savvy and psychological sensitivity becomes glaring. And though all the expected anecdotes and personalities surface--Coward, Gielgud, Richardson, Selznick, Korda, etc.--Kiernan's unstylish prose fails to project the humor and dash found in other tellings. (Compare, for instance, the Richardson/homosexual-Iago story here with its version in William Redfield's Letters from an Actor.) Anyone seriously interested in Olivier's acting, then, will stick with John Cottrell's Laurence Olivier (1975). The Edwards book remains superior on the Leigh/Olivier scandals and miseries. A recent New York Times Magazine piece is a better source on Olivier's last few years. And so it goes--leaving this a marginal entry primarily for those keen on sitting in while a few faceless ""sources"" trade lots of low-level gossip.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 1981
Publisher: Times Books