Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton: The Lives and Careers of Britain’s Most Famous Shakespearean Actors

by Charles River Editors

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*Includes pictures *Includes the actors' quotes about their lives and careers *Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading Of all the great actors of the 20th century, personifies acting royalty more than Laurence Olivier, and some of this is simply due to the fact that he was actually knighted in 1947, along with a lengthy list of other honors that include being named a life peer in 1970 and admission to the Order of Merit in 1984. To speak of The Right Honourable Lord Laurence Olivier is not a figure of speech but rather a fact. Of course, in addition to the literal sense of the term, there is undeniably a manner in which Laurence Olivier qualifies as acting royalty, as it is not for nothing that Spencer Tracy once referred to Olivier as “the greatest actor in the English-speaking world” (Bacall). It is also important to note that Tracy refers to Olivier not as a film or theater actor specifically, because much of Olivier’s lofty standing derives from his ability to successfully navigate different mediums like stage, film, and television. The breadth of mediums in which he worked, the various roles he inhabited within them (actor, producer, director), and the formidable time span of his career lend Olivier’s career a scope of perhaps unmatched magnitude. Indeed, Laurence Olivier worked for so long and was so successful that few actors receive the level of visibility that he still enjoys, even more than two decades after his death. While his theatrical performances exist only as memories, his cinematic adaptations of several of Shakespeare’s most famous plays remain the most canonical even to this day. Hamlet, for example, has been produced for the screen by several famous directors, but his version, released in 1948, is the most well-known and best-received. It is through his films that viewers also gain a full appreciation of his creative style, as Olivier assumed full authorial control (from actor to director to producer) over many of his films, particularly the Shakespearean ones. In this sense, it is appropriate to claim that Laurence Olivier was not only a storied actor but also an artist who worked best when enjoying full authority over his productions. In the 1960s, the most popular actor in the world was Richard Burton, a hard-drinking Welshman who was nevertheless so professional that he was one of the preeminent stage performers of his day. In fact, he performed Shakespeare so magnificently that he was compared to British legend Laurence Olivier, and that success ultimately led to a film career that earned him 7 Academy Award nominations, as well as BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for Best Actor. Given his accomplishments on the stage and in Hollywood, Burton became one of the world’s most recognizable leading men, so it seemed fitting that he engaged in one of Hollywood’s most legendary romances with Elizabeth Taylor while on the set of Cleopatra, one of the era’s most notorious movies. In fact, his tumultuous relationship with Taylor, which included two marriages, dominated tabloids and remains the one thing most people associate with Burton today, despite the rest of his accomplishments. Burton’s high-profile marriage to Taylor helped bring attention, but it also led to more self-destructive behavior, and in a sense it represented the peak of Burton’s career. Over the last decade of his life, Burton began appearing in mediocre films, and due to his declining health and constant drunkenness, his performances were mediocre as well, often involving incoherent slurring. The fast life ultimately caught up with him in 1984, when a cerebral hemorrhage killed him at the age of 58. Fittingly, it was the same cause of death that befell his alcoholic father in 1957, just as Burton was at the precipice of Hollywood stardom.




















Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton: The Lives and Careers of Britain’s Most Famous Shakespearean Actors Charles River Editors
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