By John H. Foote
Throughout my 40-plus years as a film student, actor, director and film critic, I have heard countless arguments about who is the greatest of all actors? Understand the word actor is gender neutral, making the decision all the more difficult. Watching acting in early cinema can be trying, as the actors seem to overact, perhaps thinking bigger is better, not having yet learned that the camera picks up every tiny detail. During the silent era, acting needed to be expressionistic, but once sound and dialogue became part of film, overacting became a liability. Watch poor Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), spitting out each line ferociously, making clear her rage. Rather than portray the moment, she goes for the attitude, but it is so very wrong. Early film acting was often like this, busy, always in motion, always talking, and making clear the audience know exactly who the villain was.
The heart and soul of any film is through the characters, thus through performance. Without a fine performance, even the greatest story or screenplay can be reduced to something less than it should be. But great acting, sublime performance can elevate weak screenplays to impossibly greater heights.
Some of the first actors to recognize the power of the camera were James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Vivien Leigh and Katherine Hepburn, with Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles soon to follow. Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne too realized what the camera picked up, so they acted with great economy. Gradually, actors learned that portraying a villain as a feverish lunatic was predictable. Richard Widmark’s grotesque performance as a killer in Kiss of Death (1947) is perhaps the most ridiculous example of overacting in the 40’s.
In the early to mid-40’s came Lawrence Olivier, and perhaps because he performed Shakespeare, the audiences of the time were overly impressed. I think the works of Shakespeare have always intimidated audiences, leading them to believe that anyone who can perform the works of the Bard must be talented. His early films Henry V (1944) and more so Hamlet (1948), had undeserved praise heaped upon them. Olivier won one Oscar as Best Actor for his Danish prince, an honorary Oscar for Henry V. In hindsight, he did not deserve either of the awards. He was British, handsome (I guess), had perfect diction, and spoke Shakespeare’s magnificent dialogue with ease, so audiences and critics fell hard. Reciting Shakespeare does not a great actor make! It means they have studied the play and know it, nothing more. Nor does a gifted stage actor necessarily transfer well to cinema. For many years, audiences and critics alike believed Olivier was the greatest actor alive.
But he did not have it all, at all. Not even close. And as a human being, he was a monster.
In fact, let me state here and now, Sir Laurence Oliver was among the most overrated actors to ever grace the silver screen, a vile man who enjoyed humiliating other actors, especially women, and who took great enjoyment in systematically destroying Vivien Leigh, his wife of many years. His blinding arrogance was his undoing, because by the 50’s when Method Acting and Marlon Brando exploded, Olivier was out, and he did not like it one bit. From slapping Maggie Smith backstage because she got a laugh he felt she did not deserve, to behind the scenes directing Vivien Leigh during the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), he made few friends, and found himself banned from the Streetcar set and at odds with Brando, who recognized Olivier for the bully he was, and protected Leigh, a fragile creature from her husband’s ranting. By all accounts Olivier was a unlikable man, fueled by his own massive ego until his death. Brando recognized him as a bully and took action when he saw that the film and Miss Leigh could be compromised.
By 1972 I was intensely addicted to all things cinema. By a stroke of luck, I discovered the massive film book section in my grandmother’s library. She got me a card and I loaded up on books about movies. Movie history, the genres, production of various moves, the Academy Awards, everything I could devour. Over the next eight years, before I went off to college, I read everything I could find about movies. I joined the Movie Book Club out of New York, I found Cine Books at 692a Yonge Street and went downtown often to load up on more books, this time buying them, building the massive library I have to this day.
For years I read in countless books and film journals that Laurence Olivier was “the greatest actor of the 20th century”. The trouble was, I watched Olivier’s films and didn’t understand the fuss. He was nothing when compared to Brando.
Olivier seemed to have hammered out his reputation just after WWII when the British film industry was in tatters. It is difficult to make films when bombs are being dropped on the city. But as soon as the war ended, Olivier directed and starred in Henry V, which was widely acclaimed. True Olivier spoke Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter beautifully, with perfect diction, but is that all it takes to be a great actor? What about the emotions behind the words, the feeling? Acting is about realism, about capturing the absolute truth of the role, and yet there was nothing truthful in Olivier’s work. Every aspect of his “acting” was visible, there was no truth. He just acted all over the screen.
After reading a New York Times article that hailed American actor Robert Duvall “The American Olivier”, and hearing Duvall was insulted by the comparison, I decided to educate myself on everything Olivier. This was around 1980. I was a drama student with an eye to direct, and I felt the need to explore everything about him onscreen. I saw everything he made on film, I read every biography I could find, I consumed him. As luck would have it, one of my professors had studied under Olivier in Britain, and I got to hear a great deal about him — as in way too much. It quickly became apparent that this professor worshipped at the altar of Lord Olivier and would not hear any criticism about the man. Being a die-hard believer in the Method, I believed that Marlon Brando was the single most important actor in film history. Needless to say, we locked horns.
This professor explained Olivier’s audition process as this. You come into the room; you sit across from the great Olivier. He says nothing, he merely stares at you. I wonder if he ever considered how horrific that might have been for any young actor? The poor auditionees were left to fend entirely for themselves, without questions or urging from him. Downright cruel.
Brando’s emergence in the late 40’s on the American stage altered everything about acting. Everything.
Never before had an actor brought such unbridled realism to their work, and Brando was revolutionary in every way. He became the character, he absorbed the character, he was the character. No pretending, no acting, Brando was extraordinary. He listened to the other actors, he did not wait for his cues, he knew they were coming because he listened, in character. He did not memorize his lines, he became them, organically in rehearsal. The more I watched Brando and the actors that came afterwards, the more I was convinced Olivier was a hammy old hack.
For Olivier, there was nothing pristine or organic, except for one moment. In Marathon Man (1976), as Dr. Christian Szell, he was terrifying, a truly chilling performance as a Nazi dentist chasing Dustin Hoffman’s Babe, a gifted historian student. I believe Hoffman challenged Olivier and elevated his game and the older man worked hard on the characterization because he did not want Hoffman to blow him off the screen as had happened before. They have one scene that stands tall in the annals of the most terrifying scenes ever filmed.
Having captured Babe, Szell has him brought to a warehouse and tied to a chair. He enters the room with a briefcase. As he washes his hands, he begins to speak to Babe, asking one question over and over, “Is it safe?” Babe has no idea what he is asking him and cannot answer. Frustrated, Szell begins to inspect Babe’s teeth, which frightens Babe. Quickly and thoroughly Szell checks Babe’s teeth and finds what he wants, a cavity. He again asks Babe, “Is it safe?” and again Babe cannot answer, so Szell slams the probe into the cavity causing unspeakable pain. The two actors disliked one another, but they are electrifying together in these scenes, and Olivier was never better.
What angered me about Olivier was that his later work was especially dreadful, but he seemed to get a pass because he was Lord Olivier. In The Boys from Brazil (1978) he played a Nazi hunter but seemed to portray her as an old Jewish woman. One year later he was Van Helsing in Dracula (1979) and again portrayed the part with a sing-song voice that was strangely feminine and again an embarrassment.
With Olivier, his motivation did not come from within. Instead, he used external sources like his accent or costume to find his character. His Hamlet was a dreadful bore, yet they gave him an Oscar; his Richard III was a twisted gargoyle of a man, a cliché; and his Othello was so painfully obvious, a white man in black body makeup. Though he was said to be a formidable stage actor (and he might have been), he never mastered the art of film acting. There is no need to be huge as if you are playing to the cheap seats in the theatre. The camera sees all, and the microphone hears all. Olivier never found a way to be intimate with his audience. Other British actors to come after him did, actors like Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and later Daniel Day-Lewis — as hardcore a Method actor as you will ever find.
To research a character, you first read the script, paying close attention to the narrative. Then you read it again, focusing on everything your character does and says. You find where you fit in to the narrative? Then you read a third time and pay absolute attention to everything said about your character, and to your character, things said directly to them or said when they are offstage. What do the others think about your character? You research their past, their connection to everyone else in the film and begin to make decisions about who you are, what, where, when and above all, why you are. Once established, you ask the single most important question an actor can ask themselves: What do I want?
Watching actors such as Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Holly Hunter, Paul Giamatti, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver or Nicolas Cage, I believe them in every aspect of their character creation. There are so many truly great actors who work very hard to find their character and present them to us. Yes, they may have trouble from time to time, but I doubt much of it is ego, more a perfectionism, the sort of thing that drove Charlie Chaplin through his career.
Olivier’s last few movies – The Jazz Singer (1980), Inchon (1981), which was unreleased, and the atrocious Clash of the Titans (1981) – demonstrate clearly his limitations and weaknesses. His heavily made-up Douglas McArthur in Inchon looked like something from Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum, but his acting was even worse, atrocious. That the film has never been released to an audience is a mercy. His Zeus in Clash of the Titans looked constantly constipated, but the most humiliating performance of his career was in The Jazz Singer as Neil Diamond’s father.
Many of the actors I have named openly credit Marlon Brando for their skills. The truth is, Brando had a greater impact on them than Olivier.
Brando’s impact is still felt today, his performances still revered. Sir Laurence? All but forgotten. Mercifully.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.