"I believe in the theater," said the new Baron of Brighton in his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1971. "I believe in it as the first glamourizer of thought." That was the theater to Laurence Olivier, and that was Olivier to all who fell under the glamorous spell he wove. More immediately and lastingly than any other modern actor, Olivier picked words off the playscript page, flung them passionately into the dark and secured them in the minds of theatergoers. Brilliance, for once, had its rewards. As critic Kenneth Tynan proclaimed in 1966, "Laurence Olivier at his best is what everyone has always meant by the phrase 'a great actor.' " Director, producer, prime mover of Britain's National Theater, embodier of the most vital Shakespearean heroes, Olivier at his death last week at 82 held undisputed claim to yet another title: the 20th century's definitive man of the theater.
Like the century he almost spanned, Olivier the actor displayed turbulent energy, embraced awesome excess; his genius and his folly fed each other spectacularly. Said Albert Finney, who in 1959 understudied Olivier as Coriolanus: "He makes the climaxes higher, and he makes the depths of it lower, than you feel is possible in the text."
So too with the text and texture of Olivier's life and career. He was the son of a fifth-generation Anglican clergyman, yet he found his soul upon the wicked stage. The foremost classical actor of his time, he attained his first eminence as a West End matinee idol, and his second as a Hollywood dreamboat in Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Though he pored over scripts like a new critical scholar, he was an irrepressibly physical stage performer, scaling balconies and executing dizzying falls with Fairbanksian elan. Like many men, Olivier housed a congeries of contradictions; uniquely, he transformed them into living art.
At the apex of his stage career -- in the mid-'40s, when he and Ralph Richardson led the Old Vic company through triumphal seasons in London and New York City -- Olivier could spread out the banquet of those contradictions in a single evening. In Henry IV, Part I, he was the stuttering, heroic Hotspur; in Part II, the cagey-senile Justice Shallow. The curtain would fall on his Oedipus, with its searing scream of self-revelation; after intermission he would mince on as Mr. Puff, the giddy paragraphist of Sheridan's The Critic. It was all part of a 70-year striptease in which this consummate quick-change artist always had one more veil to remove, and proof of what director Peter Glenville called Olivier's "greed for achievement."