On April 8, you will be treated to a behind the scenes look at a time in the lives the Hollywood giants Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh. Based on real-life events, Orson's Shadow by Austin Pendleton is a critically acclaimed comedy that is sharp-witted yet tender-hearted expose of the thin skins, hot tempers, and rampaging egos that exist when titans of the stage and screen come together. Set during a time when all three were struggling to recapture the fame they'd had in the their past, the play examines the nature of genius and the art of making art once the spotlight has faded.
For Laurence Olivier, the start of the 60's was a time to reinvent himself as his marriage to screen legend Vivien Leigh was crumbling. The couple had become the Hollywood tabloid stars of their day during the 40's and 50's. With Leigh away in the states, Olivier was looking for a way to create a legacy for himself. The play looks at the time in his life as he was coming off the success of his role as Archie Rice on stage and in the film version of The Entertainer. As he had done throughout his career, he attempted to use his popularity in the moment to create something bigger for himself--he wanted to build a theatre as prestigious as The Old Vic, which had helped him to become one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.
Olivier had always wanted to act. His early beginnings were that of a son to a clergyman who moved the family often. Seeing that Olivier had a general interest and talent for theatre, his pious father enrolled him in London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. Upon graduation, the young actor went on to become a member of Sir Barry Vincent Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company where he worked as a general stagehand, understudy and performed bit roles. He received his first lead for the company in the title role in Harold at the age of twenty. Shortly thereafter, he started playing much older roles like Macbeth and Hamlet. His performances soon caught the attention of the critics and established theatre community.
Playwright, Charles C. Bennett stated once that Olivier spoke Shakespeare's words as naturally as if he were thinking of them himself. In truth, the actor's interest in Freudian psychology inspired him to attack the roles he was playing in a more internal way--to look at their desires and their motivations. Olivier also looked at the physicality of his characters and would train extensively for parts. At other times he would create makeup, prosthetics, or make costuming choices early in the rehearsal process to do what he called "building a character from the outside inward." With his methods in place, more prestigious theaters sought him out.
In 1930, Olivier started looking to film so that he could afford his wedding to his first wife, fellow stage actress, Jill Esmond. The actress was a rising star of the British stage and so he turned his attention to movies, in part, to avoid being "out-shined" by his wife. Although Olivier wanted the meatier parts that he was afforded to perform onstage, his good looks tended to typecast him in the innocent heroic roles. Dissatisfied by his early work on movies, he returned to the stage. In 1935, he was selected by his contemporary, John Gielgud, to play the lead in Romeo and Juliet at The Old Vic. The overwhelming success of that production led the company to pick Olivier for their Hamlet. Little did the actor know that he had a secret admirer coming to many of his performances of Romeo and Juliet who was an aspiring actress herself. Vivien Leigh took a liking to the dashing actor and set out to be cast opposite of him in Hamlet. The pair starred in the Danish tragedy and went on to appear in the films Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days (1940), and That Hamilton Girl (1941).
As Larry was away doing movies with his new leading lady, he and his wife drifted further and further apart. Despite being married to Esmond for nearly a decade and the pair having one son together, the two decided to call it quits. Olivier was enjoying his new-found success in motion pictures. By 1939, he and Leigh were both in high demand with Leigh being selected to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Olivier bringing his psychological intensity to the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. The roles made both actors into International superstars and they received Academy Award nominations for their work.
Olivier used his success on Wuthering Heights and an Oscar nomination the following year for Rebecca to help Gielgud and John Burrell build The Old Vic into one of the most respected theatre's in the world. Throughout the 40's, Olivier would continue to receive accolades for his stage portrayals of Richard the Third and Henry the Fifth. The "actor of his generation" and now Co-Director of The Vic was doing so much for theatre in England that he was knighted in 1947. As he used his star power to advance the mission of The Old Vic, he decided it was time to begin producing, and directing himself in movies of his own. In 1944, he reprised his role as Henry V of England for a big screen adaptation of the play.
Henry V went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor but instead was given a Special Award from the Academy. It wasn't until Olivier returned to his role as Hamlet in 1948 that the producer, director, and actor received his first pair of awards. The movie was the first non-American film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In addition, Olivier took home his first gold statue for Best Actor.
He continued to work on film projects throughout the 50's but never really delivered performances that grabbed audiences the way he had in the previous decade. Larry and Vivien continued to work on both stage and screen with Leigh winning her second Academy Award for Best Actress as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. As with his first wife, Olivier was being upstaged on film by his second wife. He hit an acting doldrum and began working with more experimental theatre companies to challenge himself.
In 1957, Olivier took the role of Archie Rice in John Osborne's play The Entertainer at the Royal Court Theatre. The drama was well-received and when it was moved to the US for a Broadway run, a young Joan Plowright was cast to play Archie's daughter. She later went on to make the movie version directed by Tony Richardson with Olivier receiving an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a down and out dance hall performer.
With his career on the upswing again, the actor took Plowright on as his protege and the pair embarked on creating The National Theatre. When Pendleton's play opens it is early in the process of what would eventually become Olivier's greatest legacy. The actor served as the Artistic Director of The National from 1963 to 1973. He and Plowright's relationship grew to become much more than that of mentor and apprentice. The actress became his third wife in 1961 and stayed by his side until his death in 1989.
Audiences will get a rare glimpse into the life of these Hollywood stars April 8-23 when Orson's Shadow comes to Chicago Street.
-Eric Brant, Member and Director of Marketing