A dominant, swashbuckling figure on stage and screen for more than half a century, his protean talents matured and refined through the ages from dashing matinee idol to revered elder statesman. There seemed nothing that was beyond his reach, from Hollywood stardom in the 1930s to champion of the Royal Court revolution in British drama that flourished in the 1950s. He was the pre-eminent Shakespearean performer of his generation and a source of endless fascination to the media via his marriages to Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright.
It is nigh impossible for any biographer to do justice to Olivier's hectic life, especially in the face of many previous attempts and Olivier's own memoirs. Philip Ziegler has the advantage of access to more than 50 hours of previously unpublished interviews with Olivier that appear to have found him at his most candid and unguarded. Ziegler also chooses to view this long life and career through the prism of an absolute certainty that Olivier's greatest legacy was the National Theatre and the passionate leadership he brought to the role of its founding director.
It feels as if that focus is often to the detriment of other aspects of the Olivier story, especially in the sloppy early stages of the book when Ziegler shows an unseemly haste to arrive at what really interests him. We are told about the 12-year-old Olivier in 1917 and mere pages later of the same 12-year-old Olivier in 1920. Ziegler notes that by Olivier's birth in 1907, Charlie Chaplin had made his first silent film which is simply not true. We are asked to believe that it was only the tragic death of impresario Mike Todd (in March 1958) that prevented him from financing Olivier's screen version of Richard III, a film released in December 1955.
Ziegler appears overly fond of sweeping assertions, declaring that the years between Olivier leaving the Old Vic in 1949 to opening the Chichester Festival in 1962 were a "period of marking time" before regaling us with tales of Olivier making Richard III, dazzling audiences as Archie Rice in Osborne's The Entertainer and delivering performances at Stratford that were "some of the finest Shakespearean performances of his life". Reaching 1955, Ziegler observes that "Olivier was then at the summit of his powers".
It is a biography that often frustrates but also entertains. It is a flavourful account of an era in British theatre history largely defined by the triumvirate of Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. There are plenty of theatrical anecdotes and catty asides that raise a smile. Olivier describes Arthur Miller as "a self-satisfied, argumentative, pseudo-intellectual" and recalls working with Miller's then wife Marilyn Monroe. Teaching her to act was like "teaching Urdu to a marmoset". Attempting to build bridges with the notoriously difficult Rex Harrison, Olivier proposed that they co-star in a production of Dance Of Death. "Dance Of Death?" replied Harrison. "Only on your grave, dear boy." Olivier's performance as Othello required three and a half hours of make-up each night to transform him top to toe into Shakespeare's Moor. Co-star Maggie Smith would pop her head around his dressing room door, enquiring: "How now, brown cow?"
Once Ziegler reaches the years leading to the formation of the National Theatre in 1963 he seems to be on much firmer ground. There are fascinating accounts of the heavy burdens of leadership that Olivier carried through that time and many a justification for posterity's judgment that without him it would never have come into existence or established itself as such a vital force.
Ziegler conveys a strong sense of Olivier's ruthless ambition and immense energy as he placates politicians, charms board members, fights the many fires started by mischief-maker and eternal nuisance Kenneth Tynan (the villain of the book) and then somehow manages to give his all to creating productions of Othello, The Merchant Of Venice and Long Day's Journey Into Night that are still talked about to this day. At the very same time, he was battling prostate cancer, suffered recurring bouts of pneumonia and was crippled by an intense stage fright that he had never previously experienced.
Olivier's tenacity and steely self-discipline are breathtaking. Ziegler is an admiring, fair-minded biographer, acknowledging Olivier's many flaws but more often than not affording him the benefit of the doubt. He was vainglorious, self-obsessed, a shameless show-off with a raging jealousy over the successes of contemporaries like Gielgud and Richardson, but he also possessed an egg-shell vulnerability that reflected an immense insecurity.
The sense of Olivier that emerges from this uneven but absorbing biography is of a man for whom acting was everything. He was a distant parent and an inconstant husband (there is a casual mention of affairs with Claire Bloom and Sarah Miles among others) who was never happier than when he immersed himself, body and soul, in mastering a stage role that challenged every fibre of his talent. Nothing else made any sense to him. Nothing else mattered.