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A finalist for the Sheridan Morley Prize that has been called "probably the best Olivier book for general readers” (Kirkus Reviews), Philip Ziegler's Olivier provides an incredibly accessible and comprehensive portrait of this Hollywood superstar, Oscar-winning director, and one who is considered the greatest stage actor of the twentieth century. The era abounded in great actors—Gielgud, Richardson, Guinness, Burton, O’Toole – but none could challenge Laurence Olivier’s range and power. By the 1940s he ...

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A finalist for the Sheridan Morley Prize that has been called "probably the best Olivier book for general readers” (Kirkus Reviews), Philip Ziegler's Olivier provides an incredibly accessible and comprehensive portrait of this Hollywood superstar, Oscar-winning director, and one who is considered the greatest stage actor of the twentieth century. The era abounded in great actors—Gielgud, Richardson, Guinness, Burton, O’Toole – but none could challenge Laurence Olivier’s range and power. By the 1940s he had achieved international stardom. His affair with Vivien Leigh led to a marriage as glamorous and as tragic as any in Hollywood history. He was as accomplished a director as he was a leading man: his three Shakespearian adaptations are among the most memorable ever filmed.

And yet, at the height of his fame, he accepted what was no more than an administrator’s wage to become the founding Director of the National Theatre. In 2013 the theatre celebrates its fiftieth anniversary; without Olivier’s leadership it would never have achieved the status that it enjoys today. Off-stage, Olivier was the most extravagant of characters: generous, yet almost insanely jealous of those few contemporaries whom he deemed to be his rivals; charming but with a ferocious temper. With access to more than fifty hours of candid, unpublished interviews, Ziegler ensures that Olivier’s true character—at its most undisguised—shines through as never before.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Simon
There are some 20 or 30 books about [Olivier], not counting many more in which he merely figures prominently. I suspect, however, that…Philip Ziegler's Olivier, may well be the best yet—perhaps even definitive—not only because it is so widely researched and readably written, but also because so much new material has become available to make such ample use of…The biography is full of marvelous anecdotes; traces sovereignly the rivalries with Richardson, Gielgud and Olivier's successor at the National, Peter Hall; and avoids the salacious. It is altogether a thorough and intelligent book: Read it.
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran biographer Ziegler (Edward Heath, 2010, etc.) offers a well-rounded portrait of the legendary English actor. Laurence Olivier's life (1907–1989) has been the subject of innumerable biographies, ranging from innocuous (Anthony Holden, 1988) to scandalous (Donald Spoto, 1992)—not to mention his own weirdly frank yet ultimately unrevealing Confessions of an Actor (1982). Ziegler's version contains nothing particularly new on Olivier's earlier years: the rivalry with John Gielgud in Romeo and Juliet, the partnership with Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic (home to Olivier's greatest performance, in Richard III); his pioneering efforts as a popularizer of Shakespeare on film, most notably with Henry V; and the tragic marriage to Vivien Leigh, doomed by the basic incompatibility of their talents. Ziegler does convey a vivid sense of what made Olivier the most famous stage actor of the 20th century: He simply worked harder than anyone else and invested his roles with a physical bravura that made him thrilling to watch. The biography is notable for a substantive account of Olivier's tenure as director of England's National Theatre, during which he helped establish a fledgling organization with his charm and charisma while also displaying the well-known competitiveness that kept such acting peers as Gielgud and Richardson off the National's roster. Nonetheless, as Ziegler notes, the National owed its existence to Olivier's "passionate exuberance [and] dynamic energy"; he deserved better than the poorly managed transition to Peter Hall's leadership in 1973. Olivier's final years were marked by a series of debilitating illnesses that left him unable to work onstage, a painful fate for an actor who regarded film and TV as second choices. His formerly happy third marriage to Joan Plowright suffered in this period as well; once he could no longer act, he was a querulous old man waiting to die. Despite a lack of revelations, this is probably the best Olivier book for general readers.
From the Publisher
“A well-rounded portrait of the legendary English actor . . . probably the best Olivier book for general readers.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This new book is… a triumph. Ziegler’s first biography of an actor, it glitters with theatrical life—the tensions, the triumphs, the backstage bitchery. He reduces a huge welter of sources to a crisp narrative, cracking with civilised irony. It is also balanced. Even Tynan, whom Ziegler obviously considers poisonous nuisance, is given praise when due. Above all it succeeds, as far as is humanly possible, in bringing alive on the page Olivier’s magnetic theatrical presence, which those who saw him act will never forget.”—John Carey, The Sunday Times

“Ziegler is an elegant, unfailingly lucid writer, his manner brisk and incisive . . . Ziegler has addressed Olivier the phenomenon in an elegant and increasingly compelling book.”—Simon Callow, The Guardian

"It enriched my sense of this amazing multi-faceted, multi-talented man."—Antonia Fraser, The Guardian

"Philip Ziegler is a master of biographical narrative. He tells the extraordinary story with fine judgment and the power of a born storyteller. Seldom has such exhaustive research been made so compellingly readable." —Award-winning author and biographer Michael Holroyd

"Olivier described himself in later life as 'a hollow man.' [Ziegler] captures some of the magnificent noise with which the actor spent his life filling that void."—The Daily Telegraph

"Informed, informative, exceptionally well written, Olivier is very highly recommended reading for his legions of fans."—Midwest Book Review

Library Journal
Sir Laurence Olivier is routinely ranked as one of the 20th century's greatest stage and screen actors, capable of playing kings or shabby has-beens. The actor's life (1907–89) and career has been the subject of several major biographies, including his own autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982). This book presents Olivier as a study in contrasts, supportive and generous in advancing England's national theater, yet also capable of jealousy toward perceived rivals. Both charming and ambitious, he could be remarkably self-centered, an indifferent father, and something of a "blank page," even to those who knew him best. Basically, the man only came truly alive when considering his next acting or directing challenge. The book covers his legendary, tempestuous marriage to actress Vivien Leigh, unforgettable moments on the stage, his initial disdain for screen acting and television, his lengthy battles with multiple health problems, and his sad, slow decline, when his energy would only permit small roles in lucrative but unworthy films. Although some interviewed here claim that Olivier showed a lack of humanity, there is something very human, moving, and even heroic about his dedication to his craft and his tenacious fight to hold onto life. VERDICT Though not exhaustive (too many acting jobs and personalities are not included), this book is a recommended retelling of a great actor's life.—Stephen Rees, formerly with Levittown Lib., PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781623650421
  • Publisher: Quercus
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 53,403
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Ziegler has written for various newspapers and journals and was editor-in-chief at Collins from 1979 to 1980. He is also an award-winning biographer who counts among his subjects two kings and four prime ministers. His most recent book was an acclaimed life of Edward Heath.

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