Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier

  • Born: 1907
  • Died: 1989
  • Rank: 60
  • Score: 560.00
  • Awards: none for directing but countless for acting
  • Nominations: Oscar (just one for directing – 11 overall and two honorary awards)
  • Feature Films: 5
  • Best: Henry V
  • Worst: The Prince and the Showgirl

Films (in rank order):

  1. Henry V – 1944
  2. Hamlet – 1948
  3. Richard III – 1955
  4. Three Sisters – 1970
  5. The Prince and the Showgirl – 1957

Top 10 Best Director finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1946 – 6th – Henry V
  • 1948 – 2nd – Hamlet
  • 1956 – 5th – Richard III

As an actor, he is without compare. He was the greatest classically trained actor in the history of film. But having begun in the theater, and having been an accomplished director there, it was only natural that he would turn to directing on film. So, he gave us Shakespeare, the first great Shakespeare on film. First he gave us a truly brilliant Henry V, a patriotic film for a Britain beaten down by war, for which the Academy nominated the film and him (as an actor) and gave him an honorary award. Then he gave us Hamlet and won Best Picture and Best Actor (he lost Director to John Huston for Treasure of the Sierra Madre). He gave us a fantastic Richard III and was again nominated for Best Actor. He then made a smaller film, an odd teaming of himself and Marilyn Monroe before retreating with his directing back to the stage. He made one more film (as a director), bringing his version of Chekhov with his wife from the stage to the screen. His greatest legacy will always be his acting (he ranks 6th on my all-time points list), but as a director he was masterful. He just didn’t give us enough.

Hamlet – #2 film of 1948

It was a controversial choice at the time, this British import coming in and winning Best Picture from the Academy (in retrospect, Treasure probably would have won and it is my #1 choice). But Olivier had finally give a feature length Hamlet to the screen and it was a fantastic film.

There are various different types of film Hamlets (I know because I wrote a paper on them in graduate school). There are introspective ones (Branagh), there are melancholy ones (Gibson), there are bizarre ones (Williamson), there are over-acted ones (Schell) and there are bad ones (Hawke). Olivier is the most athletic. He leaps from parapets, he bounds across the stage. Though he is cursed with inaction (“this is a story of a man who could not make up his mind” the voice-over tells us at the start of the film), when he does spring into action he is physical and rough and his voice is deep and masterful.

Olivier as a director did a good job with Olivier the actor. He gave him blonde hair (“easier to spot among all the brown when filming). He stressed the Oedipal implications of the play. He cast a very good, very appropriate Ophelia (the Oscar nominated Jean Simmons). He allowed Hamlet free range of the set and the castle (his “to be or not to be” is given from the heights of a cliff). He cuts entire characters from the text to focus more on Hamlet (no Fortinbras, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern).

His was the film that others looked to. Some of his stylistic choices became common place in later film Hamlets (including voice-overs for the soliloqueys and doing “The Mousetrap” as a dumb show). But the most important stylistic choice by Olivier was to utilize a Freudian reading of the play by emphasizing the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. While there is nothing in the text to suggest that their scene takes place in anything other than a dressing closet, it is often staged in Gertrude’s bedroom. Olivier goes forward with this choice, and most of the dialogue takes place on Gertrude’s bed. At one point, Gertrude is thrown on her bed in anger and threatened with a dagger. After she screams, Hamlet leaps from the bed to kill Polonius. Before he leaves the scene, dragging Polonius’ body behind him, he kisses Gertrude on the lips. Olivier’s emphasizes the sexual longing and confusion of the scene and the relationship. This is made even more explicit a few minutes later when Hamlet explains to Claudius that “man and woman are one flesh.” Olivier brings great anxiety to the scene and his hands shake as he speaks the line, adding dramatic emphasis to a line often overlooked.

And unlike his Henry, which was made to inspire, this film was made to be divorced from reality. Olivier used Elizabethan costumes, but the constant fog and shadows adds to a dream-like un-reality. Olivier said later in interviews that he was deliberately trying to move away from the neo-realism of film at the time and attach it to a timeless age when this sort of tragedy could be placed.