April 03, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Laurence Olivier: A Biography

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Laurence Olivier
Movies, Biography

Donald Spoto has refined his faults as a biographer into an art of sorts. His portraits — of Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, and Lotte Lenya, among others — generally contain a great deal of loose psychological jargon pressed into service as a lesson on guilt or redemption. In the case of Laurence Oliver: A Biography, the opportunities for moral lessons abound; this is a man who began his 1982 memoir, Confessions of an Actor, with the plea, ”Bless me, Reader, for I have sinned.” Unfortunately, Olivier is also vulnerable to Spoto’s other methodological weakness: cockeyed speculation. He speculates not only about the British actor’s private life (suggesting affairs, for instance, with Noël Coward and Kenneth Tynan) but also about the sources of his art as well. Of the teenage Olivier’s performance as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Spoto says, the ”feminine gestures may well have been inspired by his mother, the frown by his father.”

As such simplistic analysis indicates, Spoto is not the ideal guide to Olivier’s acting. One can excuse the lapses regarding Olivier’s theatrical career. Spoto is too young to have been around for Olivier’s early stage frolics (though he often writes as if he had been present). The spotty treatment of the actor’s film work is more surprising. We get plenty of bits about the genesis of Olivier’s best-known performances (Henry V, The Entertainer, That Hamilton Woman) but very little about his growth as a movie actor.

Despite these familiar faults, Spoto’s details about Olivier’s Edwardian boyhood (missing from his own frustratingly reticent memoirs) and early strivings are particularly fresh. The actor was slow to make his mark. It was a 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet, staged when Olivier was 28, that set him on his path to greatness. His commercial fortunes may have dipped often over the following half century but his critical standing was never really in doubt.

Olivier’s sexuality was less steady. In keeping with his on-screen embodiment of all that was heroic about Britain, Olivier projected an image of the faithful husband and devoted family man. The private truth, as usual, was more complex. Spoto places special emphasis on Olivier’s long affair with the comic Danny Kaye and on his supposed inability to satisfy the sexual appetites of his second wife, Vivien Leigh. To the gossip-minded this stuff is mostly old news, and to the general reader wishing to get a fix on the more pressing question — the relation between Olivier’s frequently thwarted private life and his marvelously unfettered art — Spoto’s biography provides all too little news of any kind. B

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