Holden accomplishes something that eludes most biographers, especially those writing on a popularly acclaimed and controversial star: He presents enough material objectively and comprehensively to support a variety of judgments or opinions about Olivier as man and artist. There is much evidence here, for example, that Olivier fueled his career on great reserves of arrogance, egotism, jealousy, and ambition--characteristics that may occasionally shock a naive reader but will not surprise anyone who knows anything about professional acting or success in the modern era. A rather unlikable person surfaces time and time again, contemptuous of the “ordinary people” he had to work with during the war, catty when even his best friends achieved recognition, and capable of callous boorishness at the death of the one great love of his life, Vivien Leigh.
Holden has no axe to grind, however, and a much more sympathetic Olivier shines through as well, a man plagued by self-doubt and self-hatred and driven from one project to another as an escape from himself and the world. Theatrical success is only momentary, and the price it exacts is sometimes terrifying: The most penetrating insights of the book come when Holden dramatizes the almost tragic theme that the passion of Olivier’s art could sap the passion of his life.
Rising above the Olivier that is unlikable and the Olivier that is pathetic, though, is the Olivier that is grand. Holden shows the many moments of grandeur in each stage of Olivier’s life, though perhaps none is more moving than the description of his portrayal of King Lear even as he was approaching Lear’s age, and perhaps his fate as well.
At this late stage such an honored actor needs not more applause or fame but a critical appreciation that can fathom his contribution to acting, to film, and to the institution of the modern theater. This is not a critical biography, but Holden lets the details of Olivier’s life and work unequivocally illustrate the pivotal role he played in the modern Shakespearean revolution on stage and in film, in giving credibility to new developments in British theater, and in establishing national theater that belonged to the directors, actors, and the people more than to the bureaucrats. Athaneum, 1988, 504 pages, $22.50)