May 22, 1907 – Laurence Olivier:
“What is acting but lying and what is good lying but convincing lying?“
In early 1990, I had a role in a film with the fabulous English actor Joan Plowright. We had lunch together, just the two of us, as everyone else was called to the set. As we chatted, I never once dared to mention her famous husband or ask about those pesky gay rumors.
But at least once, a reporter did ask. Plowright answered:
“If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn’t lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behavior which you understand, and you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons. You kind of stand apart. You continue your own work and your absorption in the family, and those other things finally don’t matter.“
From the beginning of Laurence Olivier’s life in the theatre, there were rumors about his sexuality. The most intimate friend of his youth was the actor Denys Blakelock, who was openly gay. Writing years later of their relationship, Olivier admitted: “I embraced this unaccustomed happiness with an innocent young gratitude“.
The night before Olivier’s first marriage in 1930 to fellow actor Jill Esmond, a lesbian, Blakelock, who was to be his best man, climbed into Olivier’s bed, where Blakelock’s hands “strayed”. Olivier wrote in his memoir Confessions Of An Actor (1982) that this incident is true but he insisted that full-on sex never happen.
Esmond and Olivier met while working on stage together, and they regretted their marriage soon after the ceremony. But, it was their performances together in the 1933 Broadway hit The Green Bay Tree that unraveled the marriage. The play is about a suggested love affair between two male characters and a former lover of Osmond, Phyllis Konstam, later wrote: “Night after night they were speaking lines and creating characters that mirrored their own private lives. She preferred women to men. He was, at the very least, bisexual. They must have known that the marriage could never last.” The couple pretended to be happy in public, but the marriage was deeply unhappy.
Just before his marriage to Esmond, Olivier had met Noël Coward, who gave him a contract to play the second male lead, supporting Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, in Coward’s new play Private Lives (1930). At their first meeting, Coward was sitting up in bed wearing Japanese silk pajamas, finishing his breakfast. The two actors were soon on very familiar terms. Doubts have been cast on the possibility of a sexual relationship between Coward and Olivier, but Coward wrote that it was “love at first sight” and that sexual dalliances occurred between them “with some regularity“.
“At the age of 23, Larry was the most staggeringly beautiful creature I ever saw in my life, but although he was struggling to be what he thought of as ‘normal’, he had a puppy-like acquiescence to all experiences.“
In spite his liaisons with Coward, Olivier’s marriage to Esmond went ahead anyway, though it seems that she had admitted her desire for women before the marriage ceremony. They probably had a Alfred Lunt/Lynn Fontanne sort of modern arrangement. Well, I am here to tell you, that marriage was doomed anyway. Olivier had already become acquainted the beautiful 22-year-old actor Vivien Leigh, who would become his lover and his nemesis, plus he had also met Henry Ainley.
Ainley was a 57-year-old married actor who had appeared with Olivier in the 1936 film version of As You Like It. Ainley fell in love and lust with Olivier. In a letter to Olivier, Ainley wrote: “Jill must hate me, taking you away from her!” Olivier didn’t need to be taken away. That marriage was dead anyway; the ambitious Leigh already had a very determined drive to have Olivier.
Esmond divorced Olivier, citing adultery in 1940, and naming Leigh. Then Leigh’s handsome husband, Leigh Holman, also filed for divorce, citing Olivier. Leigh became the second Mrs. Olivier, getting her wish.
During the filming of her Academy Award winning role in Gone With The Wind (1939), Leigh had exhibited the first symptoms of manic depression. Her mental illness turned their marriage into a nightmare for Olivier. Leigh was plagued by breakdowns and tortured by jealousy at Olivier’s acting talent. She took to booze and pills.
Olivier looked to men for sex. In 1940, he met Danny Kaye and they started a long (fairly open for the times) flamboyant relationship. Coward was appalled to witness Olivier and Kaye openly exchanging kisses at parties. Coward despised Kaye and he referred to him as “Randy Dan” (Daniel Kaminski was Kaye’s real name).
In 1950, when the Oliviers returned to Hollywood for Leigh to film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), David Niven claims that he walked into the garden of their rented Hollywood home and:
“I discovered Marlon Brando and Larry swimming naked in the pool. Larry was kissing Brando. Or maybe it was the other way around. I turned my back to them and went back inside to join Vivien. I’m sure she knew what was going on, but she made no mention of it. Nor did I. One must be sophisticated about such matters in life.“
As his marriage to Leigh was ending, Olivier was working on Spartacus (1960), with a most notorious gay scene. As the Roman General Marcus Crassus, the nearly naked Olivier is suggestively bathed by his nearly naked slave, played by the heartily heterosexual Tony Curtis. The scene was regarded as so shocking at the time that it was cut from the final film. It was not reinstated until 1991, two years after Olivier’s death, with one of his best mimics, Anthony Hopkins, dubbing the pointedly gay dialogue:
“Some people like oysters, some people like snails. I like oysters and snails.“
Leigh divorced Olivier in 1961, devastated that as one of the most beautiful women in the world, she was being replaced by Plowright, a rather plain looking woman, but world-class actor.
Olivier and Plowright married in 1961. With Plowright, Olivier found contentment and stability. They had a son and two daughters. When Olivier sought the attention of some handsome young man, Plowright had the good taste to just ignore it.
After Olivier’s death in 1989, his official biographer, Terry Coleman, asked Plowright if he had had same-sex affairs. Plowright answered: “If he did, so what?“ Tarquin Olivier, Olivier’s oldest son wanted to censor all of the the gay parts from Coleman’s well-written Olivier (2005), and he pressured Plowright to withdraw her permission. She refused. Plowright had courage to allow his complex life to be looked at with honesty.
Olivier was a giant in the world of theatre, giving colossal performances in classical and modern plays. His acting technique was minutely crafted, and he was famous for changing his appearance considerably from role to role. By his own admission, he was addicted to extravagant make-up, and unlike his peers Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, he was incredibly gifted at doing voices and accents. His own description of his technique was “working from the outside in”.