Olivier: The authorised biography

This is a book that, you sense, is more comfortable when, say, detailing the tax dodges of Laurence Olivier Productions (he and his second wife, Vivien Leigh were able to fund their baronial lifestyle at Notley Abbey because they had early cottoned on to the benefits of selling their services through a corporation) than when analysing what, of the man and the artist. went into the making of such indelible performances as Richard III and (an ageing great actor portraying a tragic travesty of one) James Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Our perception of the shape of the life is left largely uncomplicated by Coleman's assiduous researches. Olivier stood in a kind of shifting symbolic relation to his times. Thanks to his instinct for adaptation, he was able to move from being more regal than royalty ("In God's name don't let this happen. To us it's as tho' the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were estranged," wrote a New Zealand fan when word got out that his fairytale/nightmare marriage to the manic-depressive Vivien was on the skids) to being the first leading actor of his generation to work at the radical Royal Court, where he reinvented his career playing the seedy, washed-up comedian, Archie Rice, in The Entertainer (1957). The iconic wartime Henry V had transmuted into a metaphor for the plight of post-Suez Britain.

John Osborne once said of him that "Up to a point, I think his attitude is that he is making history, particularly English history". Olivier came to feel (and most agreed) that it was his destiny to lead the newly established National Theatre, but his early career shows that fate cannot be taken for granted, even by a force of nature. At 28, he had not yet tackled a leading Shakespearean role, a situation he spectacularly remedied by alternating Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud in a landmark 1935 production. In Hollywood, he had been rebuffed when Greta Garbo had him sacked as the love-interest in Queen Christina and it was not until six years later that, on the set of Wuthering Heights, he served a bruising but breakthrough apprenticeship under William Wyler, who berated him mercilessly about his hammy style and snooty attitude to the medium.

Coleman has had access to the vast Olivier archive and such valuable resources as the remaining transcripts of 57 hours of interviews taped by Mark Amory in preparation for an abortive ghosting-writing job on the autobiography, and later conversations with the actor Gawn Grainger - who wrote, under Olivier's name, the book On Acting. With varying versions of events at his fingertips, the authorised biographer is at his best when patiently trying to disentangle the truth from Olivier's attempts at myth-making.

Take his investigation of the actor's claim that Ralph Richardson came near to killing him during the Old Vic's visit to Paris in 1945. Jealous at the fact that Olivier's Richard III launched the season rather than his own Peer Gynt, did a drunken Richardson, with murder in his eyes, dangle his colleague over the 60-foot drop from a hotel balcony?

Coleman's method is to compare the published account in On Acting with the conversation from which it is derived and to show that you can hear, in the latter, Olivier making up the story for effect as he goes along. He establishes, too, that there is tellingly no mention of the incident in the actor's daily correspondence with Vivien Leigh. The book therefore substantiates the suggestion, floated in Garry O'Connor's biography of Sir Ralph, that the anecdote was a devious exercise in role-reversal. Ever touchy about rank, Olivier was very likely projecting on to Richardson his own Iago-like feelings in the Fleet Air Arm during the War when Richardson was promoted over him to lieutenant commander.

The actor was a profuse, sometimes incontinent letter-writer, and Coleman's liberal quotations let us hear many sides of the man. A 32-page missive to Tennessee Williams throbs with his theatrical savvy about audience response as he eloquently argues for cuts in A Streetcar Named Desire. There's a desperate mix of baby-talk reproof and kiss-it-better smut ("Smack! Smack! Smack!...Naughty pooossey") in a communication sent from 3,000 miles away to Vivien Leigh, who had taken an overdose while making Gone With The Wind. There's the bewildered, 100-per-cent actor who can't trust his offstage instincts in a letter that debates whether to disclose the doctor's grim diagnosis to his sick brother: "I think I should want to be told but I suspect my judgement in human matters is coloured by my sense of the dramatic... as often happen, I am deeply perplexed in my dealings with a really human matter".

It's a sheaf of letters sent to Olivier, though, that are the basis of the book's most hyped revelation. Coleman devotes an appendix to dismantling the contention made in Donald Spoto's biography that the actor was ever involved in a passionate affair with Danny Kaye. He does, however, put forward the proposition that in 1936-7, Olivier had a homosexual fling with Henry Ainley, a once-admired actor, twice his age and married with a son. Ainley's communications certainly aren't butch: "How are you? I have been tossing (now now) about at night thinking of you...Yes I am a Psod. And what is more, so are you...Your sweet little kitten, Henrietta". On the other hand, Coleman has little in the way of corroborating evidence for calling a "Psod" a sod, declines to quote from the "more explicit" letters, and does not seem to think it a cause for scepticism, as he does when things go unmentioned to Vivien, that Olivier never ventured a word about the Ainley episode to his third wife, Joan Plowright.

In any case, so what? As handled by Coleman, Olivier's alleged foray fails to extend our understanding of the androgynous allure and bisexual appeal which he has in common with many great performers. But then, this painstaking, unseductive tome is a bit of a paradox: a life of a theatrical titan that, whenever it briefly follows its hero onstage, leaves you with a sense of anti-climax.

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