best film:   This is a rough category for Laurence Olivier – certainly the biggest obstacle in making his case. The highlights are Rebecca (1940), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), The Entertainer (1960) and Spartacus (1960). It is a shame – because there is an Alfred Hitchcock and a Stanley Kubrick collaboration in there – the two best directors of all-time. But (and it is a big but) – these are roughly the tenth (10th) best film by each of these directors – definitely not their top tier.


best performance:  This category is much more fun. Olivier dazzles in Hamlet and that is the answer here (and the Oscar winner for Best Best Actor along with Best Picture in 1948) and it is hard to imagine another actor doing these essential Shakespeare performances better than Olivier (as an actor of course – Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles fared much better at directing Shakespeare than Olivier ever did). If Hamlet is Olivier at his best, there at least another three to four performances that are within a stone’s throw. His work in Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer probably leads that crop showing off Olivier’s range and giving him a character in his oeuvre with that seedy underbelly. He has a marvelous soliloquy in The Entertainer about being dead behind the eyes that is worth the price of admission alone. Olivier also gives the best acting performance in Spartacus (sorry Kirk Douglas) and of course his work in The Marathon Man is a famous cinema villain with this “Is it safe?” scene with Dustin Hoffman.


Hamlet (1948) would win four (4) Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier


stylistic innovations/traits:  Olivier had ten (10) career Oscar nominations (second most for male actors behind Jack Nicholson) and a career that spanned nearly forty-five (45) years with twenty-three (23) archiveable films. Many consider his name synonymous with the finest acting – or maybe a certain strand of regal acting or as a supreme technician (usually meant in a complimentary way). He does seem to be among the most skilled – which is slightly different than someone known for their abundance of raw talent (like a Marlon Brando). Olivier is known for his Shakespearean works (four of them in the archives), period films and prestige pictures, Unfortunately, often times, it is Olivier’s acting, and not the larger film, that ends up as sort of the main course of the film and it can make for some low stakes cinema art. Olivier also had some bad breaks (or one could argue it was no coincidence) along the way – he did work with some of the top auteurs of his era – but never ended up in those director’s best works.


Olivier as Crassus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Olivier had an obvious confidence about him (and why shouldn’t he?) – he appears to be in complete command and the strongest actor on screen regardless of whom he shares the screen with. Olivier had a sensational 1960 with his work here and as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. 1960 is twenty (20) years after Rebecca so Olivier’s formidable talents clearly did not diminish in the slightest over time.


directors worked with: Laurence Olivier (4), Franklin J. Schaffner (2), William Wyler (1), Alfred Hitchcock (1), Michael Powell (1), Stanley Kubrick (1), Tony Richardson (1), Otto Preminger (1), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1), John Schlesinger (1)


Olivier as Maxim’ de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). With Wuthering Heights in 1939 and Rebecca in 1940 – Olivier was already established as a great actor (though perhaps never a “star”) just after the age of thirty (30).


top five performances:

  1. Hamlet
  2. The Entertainer
  3. Henry V
  4. Spartacus
  5. Wuthering Heights


archiveable films

1939- Wuthering Heights
1940- Pride and Prejudice
1940- Rebecca
1941- That Hamilton Woman
1941- The 49th Parallel
1944- Henry V
1948- Hamlet
1955- Richard III
1957- The Prince and the Showgirl
1959- The Devil’s Disciple
1960- Spartacus
1960- The Entertainer
1965- Bunny Lake is Missing
1965- Othello
1966- Khartoum
1971- Nicholas and Alexandra
1972- Sleuth
1976- The Marathon Man
1976- The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
1977- A Bridge Too Far
1978- The Boys from Brazil
1981- Clash of the Titans
1984- The Bounty