This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)
But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.
However, after a while I got used to it and realised that the stagy portrayal is clearly intentional. Olivier is playing Richard as an actor, who is constantly putting on different roles to hoodwink his audience. Of course, this aspect is there in Shakespeare’s words, as Richard dons one disguise after another. He plays the ardent lover to Anne, the devoted brother to Clarence and King Edward and the hearty no-nonsense warrior to other lords around court. Most ludicrously of all, he steps up on the balcony to play a religious man of contemplation who really doesn’t want the Crown unless it is forced on him. His real self is only seen in his soliloquies, as he turns and mockingly addresses the audience – and, occasionally, in conversations with his partner in crime, Buckingham (Ralph Richardson).
On stage, this portrayal must have been a triumph, and I’m sure it would also work well on the big screen – but, watching the film on TV, Olivier does seem too much for his surroundings at times. I was also distracted by his fake nose, which I can only suppose was used to cover up his looks and make Richard’s mocking comments about his own ugliness work better. Was it really necessary, though? For me, a fake nose isn’t a good idea unless you are playing Cyrano – it has the same problem as a mask, covering up part of the actor’s face and so taking away from the expressiveness of his features.
All the same, Olivier speaks Shakespeare’s lines with his own unmistakable power, and there are some great scenes. I was especially impressed by the whole sequence where he seduces Lady Anne (a very young Claire Bloom) just after her husband’s funeral, rather than that of her father-in-law as in the original play. On the page, this seems so outrageous that it is hard to accept – but, when you see Olivier’s reckless energy as Richard the wooer, it suddenly makes more sense, once again proving that Shakespeare’s plays need to be seen in performance rather than read. The chemistry between Olivier and Bloom simmers here and it is no surprise to discover from a TCM article that they had an affair while making the film.
Bloom is excellent as Anne, speaking in a quiet way that makes a strong contrast with Olivier’s bombast. I also like Richardson as Buckingham, although the TCM piece says that Olivier really wanted to cast Orson Welles. The insiduous, calculating quality of Buckingham’s plotting sets off Richard’s sheer rampaging evil. But perhaps the most memorable performance, apart from Olivier’s, is John Gielgud’s as a dreamy, haunted Clarence, whose speaking of the verse could hardly be more different here from that of his great contemporary.
The film’s lavish Technicolor looks good and William Walton’s stirring music sounds great on the region 2 Network DVD, which has been well restored but has no extras (though there is a special edition available with an extra disc featuring a documentary on the historical Richard III). It’s blatantly obvious that the Battle of Bosworth wasn’t filmed in England – although we knew this was a production from Alexander Korda’s London Films, my husband and I both thought it might be somewhere in America, as it looks like a landscape out of a Western. According to the imdb, it was actually filmed at La Mancha in Spain. Not that it really matters, given the stagy quality of the whole.
To sum up, this isn’t one of my favourite Olivier roles, but, as it is so celebrated, it’s a must for anyone who wants to see his best roles and/or the greatest Shakespeare adaptations. The memory of this no-holds-barred acting also makes it all the more moving when you see a film where Olivier reins it all in, such as Carrie, which I hope to write about here next.