Laurence Olivier is counted among the greatest actors in history, known for his fantastic performances in films as well as iconic theatrical productions. The recipient of some of the most prestigious accolades in existence, Olivier’s body of work is an essential reference for countless young artists who dream of making it as an actor.
Born in Surrey, Olivier did not find comfort in his father’s parenting but he was influenced by the oratory skills evident in his speeches as a clergyman. Starting out in the domain of the theatre, Olivier eventually graduated to the world of cinema which brought him global recognition and solidified his status as a top acting talent.
Over the course of a stellar carer, Olivier built an intimidating filmography by collaborating with visionaries ranging from the great Alfred Hitchcock to the infinitely talented Stanley Kubrick. As a tribute to the legendary acting star, we explore Olivier’s cinematic body of work through six definitive roles that represent his genius.
Laurence Olivier’s six definitive films:
Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
An interesting adaptation of Emily Brontë’s famous novel, Wyler’s Wuthering Heights does not cover much of the narrative of the book but it manages to capture the atmospheric aura as well as the artistic sensibilities of the source material.
Olivier delivers a fantastic performance as Heathcliff, a tormented lover whose life is complicated by pressing sociopolitical realities. The film ended up earning eight Oscar bids including a Best Actor nomination for Olivier but it was Gregg Toland’s mesmerising cinematography that won.
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated classics, Rebecca is a true treat for all cinema fans. Olivier plays the role of an aristocratic widower who ends up marrying a woman very quickly following a difficult period where he contemplated suicide.
Incorporating gothic elements into the visual narrative of the film, the title refers to the aristocrat’s first wife who is dead but her memory is omnipresent. Rebecca is a haunting experience which pulls the audience into this strange world constructed by Hitchcock.
Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)
One of the definitive renditions of Shakespeare’s popular play, Olivier’s 1948 project remains a chronicle of his endless talents. Although there have been multiple Shakespeare adaptations over the years, this one is among the most celebrated in history.
For his brilliant portrayal of the title role as well as his direction of the film, Hamlet picked up multiple Academy Award bids and ended up winning four. Olivier was nominated for the Best Director prize as well as the Best Actor honour but he only won the latter.
Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
Although it is not ranked as highly as some of Stanley Kubrick’s other achievements such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus has its fair share of fans who also believe that Kubrick’s filmography is as flawless as it can possibly get.
Kirk Douglas features in the title role while Olivier serves up an excellent performance opposite him as the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus. A commentary on the human condition and our quest for freedom, Spartacus remains an interesting watch for all admirers of Kubrick as well as Olivier.
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)
A sublime psychological thriller by Otto Preminger, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a highly competent adaptation of the eponymous novel by Merriam Modell. The film follows the trials and tribulations of a mother (played by Carol Lynley) whose daughter is missing.
Olivier features as the investigating officer who embarks on a bizarre journey as he uncovers more details about this unsettling case. Neither critics nor Preminger believed in the film but it has been revived as a true cult classic.
Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)
Featuring the on-screen combination of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, Sleuth is an impressive addition to both their bodies of work. Olivier stars as a popular crime fiction writer who invites his wife’s lover Milo (Caine) to his huge house.
Olivier’s character is a huge fan of games due to his own literary inclinations and this meeting transforms into one of those games. For their incredible performances, both Caine and Olivier earned Academy Award nominations.