Craig Raine

  • Confessions of an Actor by Laurence Olivier
    Weidenfeld, 305 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78106 5

Confessions of an Actor is, unsurprisingly, more an impersonation than a real piece of writing. In it, Laurence Olivier acts writing – an uneasy mixture of the chatty (‘All right, I can hear you, reader dear’) and the belle-lettrist flourish (‘Fortunately for the restoration of my depleted coffers ... ’). What good bits of writing there are (not many) stem equally from Olivier’s métier: as when, for instance, he arrives in Hollywood to help the mad Vivien Leigh. ‘I said, “Hello, darling,” and when she spoke to me it was in the tone of halting dreamlike amazement that people in the theatre use for mad scenes when they can’t think of anything better. My instinctive reaction was that she was putting it on.’ She wasn’t. Soon she had to be sedated: ‘To my horror I saw that the nurse was enjoying it; she was waggling the syringe and there was a glint in her eye. But there was no time for anything; Danny Kaye and I threw ourselves on top of Vivien and held her down. Vivien fought us with the utmost ferocity as the needle went in, biting and scratching Danny and me, screaming appalling abuse at both of us, with particular attention to my erotic impulses ... ’ There is a professional, unadorned quality of observation here that survives the sentence’s limp end: ‘it seemed an eternity before she went limp and Danny and I were able to let her go, both shattered and exhausted.’ The whole incident shows us not only the distraught husband but also the observant actor. Indeed, in Olivier’s life, the professional, for the most part, took priority over the personal: ‘I have always believed that if you aspire to be an artist you must be prepared to make such personal sacrifices as separation readily, if not exactly cheerfully. It’s tough but it’s right.’

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