He was classic Hollywood's greatest interpreter of Shakespeare and arguably the greatest actor of the 20th Century. Though he only won one Academy Award in his lifetime for acting, Laurence Olivier was an extraordinary craftsman in front of and behind the camera, as well as on stages across the world. While he seemingly took any role that offered a paycheck late in his career, there is no doubt that Olivier ranks among the greatest performers of any century.
Though he made several rather forgettable movies both in his native England and in Hollywood, Olivier finally broke through with this William Wyler adaptation of Emily Brontë’s famed novel. A sweeping romantic drama, Wuthering Heights starred Olivier as the tortured Heathcliff, a former orphan who grows up and falls in love with his foster sister, Catherine (Merle Oberon), only to be rejected when she marries a wealthy man (David Niven). Though he becomes wealthy himself and buys the orphanage he grew up in, Heathcliff marries out of spite and grows bitter in old age, treating Catherine with growing contempt. The film marked a true turning point for Olivier, who earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and finally gained acceptance with American audiences.
Working with fellow Brit Alfred Hitchcock, who was making his American film debut, Olivier was perfectly cast as urbane widower Maxim de Winter, who marries a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) after meeting in Monte Carlo and brings her to his country estate. Once there, the new Mrs. de Winter attracts the contemptuous attention of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) while uncovering what happened to Maxim’s first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. It’s only through Mrs. Danvers revealing her obsession to the first Mrs. de Winter that Maxim and his new wife discover the truth, which comes at the cost of the deranged housekeeper burning down his estate. Olivier once again earned a nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards and was deemed one of Hollywood’s top new stars.
After making his directorial debut with 1944’s Henry V, Olivier crafted what many felt was the greatest adaptation of Shakespeare to film ever made. He played the titular Prince of Denmark and even was the voice of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, with a young Jean Simmons as his Ophelia, Basil Sydney as King Claudius and Eileen Herlie as Queen Gertrude. Though hailed as a remarkable film, Hamlet was criticized by some purists who felt Olivier took too many creative liberties, particularly in light of cutting almost two hours out of the story. Still, Olivier’s Hamlet was truly a landmark film that earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor – the only Academy Award of his career.
Bitter and cynical, The Entertainer showcased one of Olivier’s greatest later career performances and earned him yet another nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Olivier played Archie Rice, a third-rate music hall performer who is unable to admit that his life and career are a failure, leading to the destruction of both himself and those around him. As the tradition of the music hall declines in popularity, Archie strives to put on one last show by finagling money from his dying father, all while cheating on his alcoholic wife (Brenda De Banzie) and pushing away his son (Albert Finney), who joins the army and dies in combat. His only solace is his sympathetic daughter (Joan Plowright), but that doesn’t stop Archie from falling completely into a pit of delusion and self-destruction.
Following years of struggle with various health issues, Olivier sent shudder through audiences with his chillingly sadistic portrayal of a Nazi war criminal who comes out of hiding to retrieve a stolen cache of valuable gems. He suspects that a U.S. secret agent named Doc (Roy Scheider) has stole the gems, which forces him to leave his self-imposed exile in South America and travel to New York, where he kills Doc and kidnaps his younger brother, Babe (Dustin Hoffman). In one of the more gut-wrenching scenes, Olivier’s Nazi fugitive performs oral surgery on the unwitting Babe to extract the location of the gems. A tense thriller steeped in 1970s paranoia, Marathon Man gave Olivier the rare chance to play a sadistic villain, which resulted in him earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.