OLIVIER: Philip Ziegler
MacLehose Press, Quecus Books
ISBN: 978 0 85705 119 6
RRP: 25 gbp
Review: Alex Taylor, 25 09 13
Always readable, frequently brilliantly insightful.
Philip Ziegler’s biography of Laurence Olivier is a very good place to start if you haven’t read a biography of Olivier before, and if you have read one, you’ll still find a lot to grab your attention.
His new biography packs everything into around 400 pages and moves through Olivier’s life at a cracking pace. Moreover, from time to time, you will find insights in it that are not available elsewhere. There there is a fascinating discussion that begs the question, ‘When does a good actor become great?’ which opens the chapter on The Old Vic, and there are a number of other insights into Olivier’s early life and career. For instance, the process of filming Wuthering Heights, and his relationships with his co-star, Merle Oberon, and his director, William Wyler are fascinating in the preceding chapters. These elements make this book engaging reading.
Much is made of Olivier’s involvement in the National Theatre and there is a surprising amount of detail given with regard to the vicissitudes of life at the National and of the relationship between Olivier, as Artistic Director, the Board and his Dramaturge (Kenneth Tynan). On the one hand, one feels the Olivier captured here is authentic; Zeigler paints him warts and all – the autocrat, capable of temper tantrums, the ambitious actor who felt rivalries within his peer group keenly. Ziegler is not afraid to say when he thinks Olivier fudged things or when a performance was not quite up to scratch (for instance, Ziegler is critical of Olivier’s performance in the famous film of Hamlet for which Olivier won Oscars for best director and best actor).
All this is refreshing in its forthrightness. On the other hand, Ziegler cannot help, from time to time, eulogising his subject and, as all good biographers must, making the case for Olivier being the greatest actor/manager/director ever to have lived.
Ziegler also has interesting insights to make regarding Olivier’s famous portrayal of Othello, which he contextualises brilliantly and, throughout, the book is scattered with vignettes of relationships with Olivier’s co-actors, rivals and colleagues that frequently ring true. This, then, is a comprehensive overview of a complex and remarkable personality that is also able, from time to time, to hone in on the particular and the personal. It is a welcome addition to the plethora of Olivier biographies already available, not least because, from time to time, it has something insightful to say about its subject.