Monday, September 08, 2014


Among other things, Sir Laurence Olivier was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, perhaps of all time. And, he is perhaps one of the few actors who successfully transitioned from London stage to Hollywood effortlessly, winning an Oscar for Hamlet, winning acclaim for Wuthering Heights and Rebecca and winning ridicule for directing Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl.

Nowadays, however, his legacy seems to have come down to a few things, yes, there is Rebecca, there is his tumultuous love affair with Vivien Leigh who was losing her mind at the time, his last great role with Michael Cain in Sleuth, and most importantly, whether he was a poof (British slang for gay or effeminate men).

The last one is a prickly issue. To begin with, he was married thrice and his widow Joan Plowright is a celebrated actor by her own right, and everybody he was close to says he was not homosexual or bisexual, like say Noel Coward. Yes, there are his mannerisms, his brooding look, the way he addressed everyone, darling … the contest is on.

In his exhaustive biography, culled from achieved material, Olivier’s own writings, and from interviews with people in the know, Terry Coleman addresses the issue in a short last chapter, calling him an androgynous actor, claiming that Olivier had both the male and female sides to his persona, being an actor.

Yet, Coleman would neither confirm nor refute the claims of Olivier’s homosexual dalliance. He says, perhaps Olivier experimented with it during his youth, but not later, as another biography of him, published in 1991, seems to claim. According to Coleman, that previous biography distorts facts to give readers a salacious view of Olivier’s life, even when there was no evident.

Coleman goes by evidence in his biography, and he does not find anything about Olivier’s queer sexuality.

Nevertheless, it is a very good, if a little exhaustive and academic biography of a man who was undoubtedly a great actor and a charismatic personality and a tortured individual to boot.

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