Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.
Who Was Laurence Olivier?
Laurence Olivier was, without question, one of the most highly respected actors of the 20th century and is often considered one of the greatest classical actors of all time. Finding success on stage and screen both as an actor and a director, his international reputation was virtually unmatched. Even after achieving success in films, this English actor still made time for the London stage.
In the 1940s, he became co-director of the Old Vic Theatre Company in London and would later go on to found the National Theatre in 1963 (working as its artistic director for its first decade). But, of course, Olivier is most often remembered for his Shakespearean roles. As an actor and director, he set the standard for bringing Shakespeare to the screen and has even been credited with helping bring the works of William Shakespeare to the masses.
The unprecedented level of prestige Laurence Olivier achieved in his lifetime is probably best demonstrated by the Society of London Theatre's decision to rename their annual award ceremony for excellence in the London theatre (the British equivalent of the Tonys), the Olivier Awards. To this day, the Olivier Awards are considered the highest honor in British theatre. When Olivier passed away in 1989 at the age of 82, he became only the second actor to ever be laid to rest at the iconic Westminster Abbey. A fitting tribute to England's most celebrated classical actor. But, if you have yet to see this great actor at work, you've come to the right place.
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my Laurence Olivier top 10 by considering each film's importance in Sir Laurence’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top 10). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.
Top 10 Laurence Olivier Films
- Hamlet (1948)
- Rebecca (1940)
- Wuthering Heights (1939)
- Richard III (1955)
- Pride and Prejudice (1940)
- That Hamilton Woman (1941)
- Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
- The Entertainer (1960)
- Carrie (1952)
- 49th Parallel (1941)
1. Hamlet (1948)
The movie that won Laurence Olivier his first and only Oscar for Best Actor, this film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet forever solidified Olivier’s reputation as one of the all-time great Shakespearean actors. Adapted and directed by Olivier, himself, Hamlet became the very first British film to win a Best Picture Oscar and still remains the only Shakespearean film to ever win the award. Olivier's performance in the movie, also, marks the very first time a lead actor had ever directed himself into an Oscar-winning performance. It would not happen again until 50 years later, when Roberto Benigni won his Best Actor Oscar for his movie Life Is Beautiful.
The story of Hamlet revolves around the titular Prince Hamlet, the crown prince of Denmark who has returned home from college to mourn the sudden death of his father, King Hamlet. Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, has already remarried her late husband’s brother, Claudius, who now sits on the throne as king. Although Hamlet is angered by his mother’s hasty marriage, he doesn’t suspect foul play until he hears rumors that his father’s ghost has been spotted on the castle battlements. When Hamlet goes to investigate, his father’s ghost appears to him. The late king claims that he was, actually, murdered by Claudius and commands Hamlet to avenge him. Now Hamlet must decide if he can trust this spirit and, if he does, whether he is really capable of killing his own uncle.
Haunting and atmospheric, this film version of Hamlet has, nonetheless, been divisive amongst Shakespeare fans. Olivier cut nearly two hours out of the four hour play to bring it to the screen, which included removing beloved comedic characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Olivier, also, added an opening narration that some fans find either inaccurate or overly simplistic. Long before this film version was made, Olivier had already played the role of Hamlet twice on stage before. Once at The Old Vic in London and again at the real Elsinore Castle in Denmark, the actual setting of the play.
Although not credited, Olivier, also, plays the role of King Hamlet's Ghost in this film, both providing his voice for the role and appearing as the king in flashbacks. The unearthly voice of the Ghost was achieved by Olivier recording all of his dialogue in a stage whisper and then, playing the recording back at a slower speed. His voice ended up being so unrecognizable, that many viewers, actually, assumed it was English actor John Gielgud playing the role.
2. Rebecca (1940)
Based on the popular novel by Daphne du Maurier, this gothic psychological drama is the movie that finally brought legendary director Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood. Perfectly capturing the novel’s unsettling, gothic atmosphere, Rebecca is actually the only Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar (it, also, won for Best Cinematography).
The film features Olivier in the role of Maxim de Winter, a wealthy widower who after a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, marries a young and unassuming lady’s companion (played by Joan Fontaine). After the wedding, Maxim brings his new bride back home to his grand estate in Cornwall, known as Manderley. The new Mrs. de Winter is immediately overwhelmed by her new “elevated” station and finds herself intimidated by all the expectations people seem to have for her.
Most of all, she’s intimidated by Manderley’s icy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who was apparently very close with Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. In fact, everyone seems to have been in love with the beautiful and accomplished Rebecca. The memory of Rebecca seems to haunt the very rooms of Manderley and, as time goes on, the legend of the perfect Rebecca starts to weigh on the second Mrs. de Winter more and more.
During production of Rebecca, there were many clashes between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, who insisted on the film version of Rebecca being as accurate to the original book as possible. Hitchcock preferred to have full creative control and frequently pushed back against Selznick’s influence. In the end, the two seemed to find a middle ground: Rebecca is still recognizably a Hitchcock film, yet the changes from novel to screen really only amount to small tweaks.
Olivier’s fiancee, Vivien Leigh, actually auditioned for the role of the second Mrs. De Winter and Olivier pushed heavily for her to be cast. However, he was ultimately overruled by Selznick, who didn’t think Leigh was the right type for the role. Olivier was bitterly disappointed that Leigh hadn’t been cast and, unfortunately, took out some of his frustration on his co-star, Joan Fontaine. Interestingly enough, Olivier and Vivian Leigh would, actually, end up performing a radio production of Rebecca together 10 years later, finally giving Leigh the opportunity to play the second Mrs. De Winter opposite Olivier’s Maxim.
3. Wuthering Heights (1939)
Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte, this gothic romance was the film that officially turned Laurence Olivier into a major Hollywood star. Told mostly in flashback, the film stars Olivier as Heathcliff, an orphan boy who was living on the streets of Liverpool until he was found by the kindly Mr. Earnshaw. Mr. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff back to his estate on the Yorkshire moors to be raised alongside his own children, Hindley and Cathy (Merle Oberon). Hindley is immediately threatened by his father’s obvious affection for Heathcliff. However, Cathy and Heathcliff become quite close and as the years go by, the two seem to develop a unique bond that only they can fully understand.
After the death of his father, Hindley becomes the new master of Wuthering Heights and although he does allow Heathcliff to stay, he relegates him to the status of a lowly stable boy. Even though Cathy clearly loves Heathcliff, she also finds herself drawn to the luxurious lifestyle and good manners of her handsome neighbor, Edgar Linton (David Niven). Offended by Cathy’s fascination with the Linton family, Heathcliff’s anger and bitterness grow ever stronger as his childlike dreams of running away with Cathy start to slip further and further away.
Directed by William Wyler, this classic film still remains the most famous movie version of the iconic novel. However, this version actually only features the first half of the novel (a fact fans of the book have always lamented). Possibly because of this, the events of the novel’s second half are much lesser known to general audiences with some critics even claiming that this movie version has affected mainstream audiences’ view of the novel and its characters ever since.
Filmed primarily in Thousand Oaks, California, production on Wuthering Heights was not a very happy experience for Olivier or Merle Oberon. Both actors were upset about being separated from their loved ones in the UK and, to make matters worse, they really didn’t get along very well with each other. Olivier was, also, annoyed by William Wyler’s directing style, which often included him being forced to do an excessive amount of takes without being told why. Ironically, in hindsight, Olivier would end up crediting Wyler as the director who actually helped him learn how to act onscreen.
4. Richard III (1955)
Directed and produced by Olivier, himself, Richard III is largely based on the play of the same name by William Shakespeare but, also, incorporates elements from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. The film stars Olivier as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and brother to the newly crowned King of England, King Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Richard wishes to become king, himself, but he is a long way down the line of succession. However, Richard is determined to get what he wants and he is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone who might get in his way.
Richard III was the last of the three Shakespearean movies Olivier directed and it was, actually, the least critically acclaimed at the time. It was, also, the only one out of the three not to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (though Olivier was still nominated for Best Actor). Ironically, Richard III is now considered by many critics to be one of Olivier’s best onscreen performances and his most influential film.
In an unprecedented move, when Richard III was first released in theaters, it was also shown on television that very same afternoon. Although the movie was ultimately considered a box office failure, the ratings of its television broadcast were, actually, enormous. It’s even been asserted that the Richard III TV broadcast may have done more to popularize Shakespeare than anything ever had before. Of course, many Shakespeare buffs will notice that the nearly four hour play has been extensively cut to a much more manageable two and a half hours for the movie. Most of these cuts were made to make the story more accessible to those without prior knowledge of historical events or Shakespeare’s earlier plays.
Richard III was originally performed as the final chapter in a series of four plays (including Henry VI Parts 1-3) so, Shakespeare had written the play under the assumption that the audience had seen the previous three. Although most of the film's dialogue is true to the original play, Olivier did use some lines from some 18th century Richard III adaptations (specifically, those written by Colley Cibber and David Garrick). Just like Olivier, Cibber and Garrick had also chosen to include some scenes from Henry VI, Part 3 in their Richard III adaptations to better set the stage for Richard’s story.
5. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Heavily influenced by the stage version by Helen Jerome, this movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice marks the very first time Jane Austen’s famous novel would be brought to the screen. The film stars Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet, one of five Bennet daughters that their mother is desperately trying to marry off.
Elizabeth is not nearly as panicked about marriage as her mother, but she is happy to encourage her eldest sister, Jane, when she catches the eye of their wealthy new neighbor, Mr. Bingley. Along with being rich, Mr. Bingley is a sweet soul and seems to be a perfect match for the demure Jane. However, his equally rich friend, Mr. Darcy (Olivier), is not nearly as friendly. Elizabeth takes an immediate dislike to Mr. Darcy, especially after she overhears him making some haughty comments at a local ball. However, Elizabeth’s initial assumptions about Mr. Darcy might not be as accurate as she thinks they are.
Fans of the original novel will, no doubt, immediately notice that this film pushes the setting of Pride and Prejudice forward a bit, from the early 1800s to the 1830s. Although the filmmakers claimed that they made the change in order to give the film more opulent fashions, some believe that the real reason was the realization that Civil War costumes from Gone with the Wind could be reused for the background actors if the setting was pushed up a bit. This film, actually, reignited interest in the original novel and, at least, five new editions of the book were printed to coincide with the film's release.
Originally, Pride and Prejudice was planned to be filmed in full color. However, when filming began, all of the Technicolor reels were being used on other productions, forcing them to film in black-and-white. For his part, Olivier was never completely happy with the finished film. He still felt like Darcy was too unlikable and, although he respected Greer Garson, he ultimately felt she had been miscast in the role of Elizabeth (once again, he had lobbied for Vivien Leigh to be given the female lead). Pride and Prejudice would, actually, end up being the last Hollywood film Olivier would make for 12 years. He and Vivien Leigh would return to England the following year to focus on performing in English theatre and film.
6. That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Also known under its British name, Lady Hamilton, That Hamilton Woman was the third and last movie Olivier would star in opposite his significant other, Vivien Leigh. It was, also, the only one the couple would appear in after they were married. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film tells the true story of Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh), a model and actress who earns significant prestige through her marriage to the British ambassador to Naples. Despite her high-profile marriage, Emma finds herself falling in love with Admiral Horatio Nelson (Olivier), a married British officer who is destined to become a celebrated naval hero. The two begin a legendary affair that is sadly bound for tragedy.
Both a historical romance and a naval war story, That Hamilton Woman was often cited as Winston Churchill’s favorite movie. There are even rumors that Churchill may have been a ghost writer for some of Nelson’s vigorous wartime speeches. In fact, the film was partially made to boost wartime morale in Britain while, also, portraying Britain in a more sympathetic light for American audiences. At the time this movie was made, the US had not yet entered WWII and the British were desperate for American help to fight the Nazis.
That Hamilton Woman purposely tried to use the war against Napoleon as a metaphor for the war against Hitler. The film’s director and producer, Alexander Korda, was even using his NYC offices as a cover for British MI-5 agents that were gathering intelligence for the war effort (both on German activities and American isolationist groups). The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee was, actually, getting ready to charge Korda with illegally operating a British espionage and propaganda center within US borders when the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into the war (which ended up making the charge completely inconsequential).
7. Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
Directed by Otto Preminger, this psychological mystery is based on the novel of the same name by Merriam Modell. Set in London, Olivier plays the role of Police Superintendent Newhouse, who is assigned to the case of a missing child named Felicia “Bunny” Lake. Bunny and her mother, Ann (Carol Lynley), had only just moved to London from America a few days earlier to stay with Ann’s brother, Steven (Keir Dullea). When Ann tried to pick up Bunny from her first day of preschool, her little daughter had mysteriously disappeared.
But, as Newhouse continues with his investigation, things take a bizarre turn. No one at the school remembers seeing Bunny arrive. In fact, no one in London seems to have seen Bunny at all. The only people able to confirm Bunny’s existence are Ann and her brother, Steven. But, Steven actually appears to be less concerned about finding his niece and more focused on his sister’s mental state, which makes Newhouse start to suspect that there may be more to this story that anyone is telling him.
Although the original novel is set in NYC, Preminger moved the setting of Bunny Lake is Missing to London partially because he preferred London for location shooting and, also, because it made the American characters seem more isolated from other friends and family members. Preminger had been trying to make a movie version of Bunny Lake is Missing for years with many screenwriters trying their hand at the script, including Dalton Trumbo.
British husband-and-wife screenwriting team John and Penelope Mortimer were the ones who finally managed to crack the story for the director, giving the film a new ending that Preminger considered much more believable than the original novel’s. The Zombies provide songs for the movie’s soundtrack and have a small cameo. Ironically, their most famous song, “She’s Not There”, was not used in the film, despite how appropriate its lyrics would have been. While not a huge hit when it was first released, Bunny Lake is Missing has developed much more of a following as the years have passed.
8. The Entertainer (1960)
Based on the play by John Osborne, The Entertainer stars Olivier as Archie Rice, a marginally talented middle-aged British music hall performer. While Archie’s father had been a major star of the music hall scene, Archie has been performing his tired routines to smaller and smaller crowds. The music hall tradition, in general, seems to be fading away into obscurity but, Archie is determined to stick it out.
His personal life isn’t any easier. The family is deeply in debt and Archie’s son, Mick (Albert Finney in his film debut), has gone off to fight in the Suez Crisis. The egotistical Archie is, also, a serial womanizer and constantly cheating on his long-suffering second wife, Phoebe. Phoebe happens to have family in Canada that may be able to offer the family a way out of their financial troubles, but Archie can’t see anything past the life he has always imagined for himself. Even as his family is falling apart, Archie is obsessed with pursuing his failing career
Olivier originated the role of Archie in the original stage production of The Entertainer, and the play became one of his greatest onstage successes. Olivier had grown bored with his image as a purely classical actor and asked John Osborne to write a vehicle for him that would be more relevant to young theatergoers.
Working on the stage production actually introduced Olivier to the woman who became his third wife, Joan Plowright. Plowright joined the play’s cast later in the show’s run and reprises her pivotal role as Archie’s daughter, Jean, in this film version. She and Olivier married a year after the film was released and remained together until Olivier’s death in 1989.
While filming The Entertainer, Olivier, somehow, managed to also appear in a production of Coriolanus in Stratford-on-Avon at the same time. To work on both projects, Sir Laurence regularly made the commute from Stratford to the seaside town of Morecambe in Lancashire, England (where The Entertainer was shot), a nearly 3 hour commute either way.
9. Carrie (1952)
Set in the 1890s, Carrie is based on the novel, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. The film follows small-town girl Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) as she heads off to the big city of Chicago to try and make her way in the world. After struggling to hold down a job, Carrie falls into a relationship with traveling salesman Charles Drouet (Eddie Albert) and ends up moving in with him. Carrie isn’t entirely happy with this arrangement and keeps hoping that Charlie will marry her in order to make their relationship more legitimate.
Before that can happen, Carrie stumbles upon another suitor, sophisticated restauranteur George Hurstwood (Olivier). George and Carrie hit it off immediately and they begin to quietly spend more time together. Before long, Carrie finds herself falling for George but, what Carrie doesn’t know, is that George is already married. Despite this fact, George may genuinely love Carrie a lot more than anyone expects, especially Carrie herself.
Directed by William Wyler, Carrie marked Olivier’s return to Hollywood after spending over a decade working exclusively in England. He had, actually, accepted the role in order to be closer to his then-wife, Vivien Leigh, while she was starring in the film A Streetcar Named Desire.
During production, Carrie was plagued with various issues. For one, William Wyler hadn’t wanted to cast Jennifer Jones as Carrie, but her husband, David O. Selznick, lobbied so hard that Wyler finally relented. Then, by the time filming started, Wyler was mourning the unexpected death of his one-year-old son and Olivier was nursing a painful leg ailment. Jones was also pregnant and attempting to keep this fact from Wyler. Eventually, the news was leaked by famed gossip columnist, Louella Parsons.
Those familiar with the original novel will notice that this movie version has a slightly less downbeat ending (but, only slightly). Possibly because of its generally downbeat tone, Carrie didn’t end up doing very well at the box office when it was first released. However, Olivier was given consistent praise for his sensitive and layered performance as George, even earning a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actor.
10. 49th Parallel (1941)
Originally released in the US under the much more descriptive name, The Invaders, 49th Parallel was directed and produced by Michael Powell in the hopes of scaring America into joining World War II. But, ironically, by the time the movie was released, the US had actually already entered the war. 49th Parallel features an incredible ensemble cast and the biggest names in the film (Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey), actually, all agreed to work for half their normal fees because of their belief in the film’s message.
Filmed entirely on location in Canada, the movie tells the story of a German U-boat that is sunk by the Royal Canadian Air Force after attacking a Canadian freighter. But, before the U-boat was attacked, a raiding party of German soldiers had, actually, already been sent ashore. So, the six surviving Germans must make their way through Canada in the hopes of reaching the then-neutral United States. Olivier plays the role of Johnnie, a French-Canadian trapper who is one of the first to unexpectedly cross paths with the stranded and desperate Germans. Although Johnnie is a relatively small role, Olivier gives a truly transformative and memorable performance in the film.
The character of Johnnie was actually written into the movie, specifically, to help bolster support for the war amongst French-Canadians. At the time, many French-Canadians in Quebec were anti-war and even pro-German. Although 49th Parallel was unabashedly written as pro-war propaganda, the British press actually complained that the movie made the Nazis too sympathetic. The movie’s screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger, and Michael Powell both wrote letters defending the movie’s portrayal. They explained that just because people were German, did not necessarily mean that they were all unreasonable, ruthless killers and they did not want them portrayed in the movie as if they all were.
Once filming was completed, Pressburger actually had trouble getting back into Britain. His status as a native Hungarian, technically, made him an enemy alien (because Hungary had allied with Germany). It was only the intervention of Michael Powell and the Ministry of Information (a government agency responsible for publicity and propaganda in Britain) that ultimately prevented him from being deported.
Honorable Mention: Marathon Man (1976)
When choosing my honorable mention this time around, I had a number of popular Laurence Olivier movies and performances to choose from. From Oscar-nominated films like Henry V to cult classics like Clash of the Titans. But, I ultimately decided to choose this popular thriller. Based on the novel by William Goldman and adapted by him for the screen, Marathon Man stars Dustin Hoffman as Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy, a graduate student and marathon runner who is, blissfully, unaware that his brother Doc works as a secret government agent.
Lately, Doc has been working with Nazi war criminal Dr. Christian Szell (Olivier) as a diamond courier in exchange for Szell’s cooperation as an informant against other former Nazis. But, when Szell’s brother is murdered in NYC, the old Nazi’s trust is broken, putting all of his former couriers in grave danger. Szell has decided he must retrieve his entire diamond collection himself and he will cut down anyone who gets in his way, including the unsuspecting Babe.
Olivier was director John Schlesinger’s only choice for the role of Dr. Szell and it would go on to become one of Sir Lawrence’s most memorable roles. But, behind the scenes, Olivier was suffering from cancer and for a while it was questionable whether he would actually be able to finish the movie. During filming, he had to take extensive painkillers to get through the day but, the drugs also affected his memory, sometimes making it difficult for him to remember all of his lines. Luckily, Olivier ended up having a full recovery and was able to not only finish the film but, also, enjoy its success afterwards (living another 13 years).
Although it’s been said that Olivier and Hoffman did not get along very well during filming, Hoffman has denied that there was any true animosity between them. Olivier actually gave Hoffman a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare on the last day of shooting and even did a reading of some of the plays at Hoffman’s house, which Hoffman was quite delighted by. There is a famous story that Hoffman stayed up for days to put himself in a weak physical state for the film’s famous torture scenes and Sir Laurence had joked that he “should just try acting." However, Hoffman would later clarify that, in reality, he had been partying for two days straight and his “Method" process had just been a convenient excuse.
If you would like to learn more about Sir Laurence Olivier, I highly recommend Olivier’s own autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982), as well as, the book My Father Laurence Olivier (2013), written by Laurence’s son, Tarquin Olivier.
© 2022 Lindsay Blenkarn