I did a film with Joan Plowright & we had lunch together, just the 2 of us, as everyone else was called to the set. I never once mentioned her famous husband or asked about the gay rumors.
But a reporter did ask. Plowright: "If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person. He doesn't lead an ordinary life. He has extremes of behavior which you understand & you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons. You kind of stand apart. You continue your own work & your absorption in the family. & those other things finally don't matter."
Lawrence Olivier made his stage debut at age 13, in the leading female role of Kate in a school production of Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew. Olivier was so effective in the role that he was singled out for lavish praise by the greatest actress of the day- Dame Ellen Terry, who said she had only ever seen one female who had played the part better.
From the beginning of Olivier's theatre life, there was confusion over his sexual identity. The most intimate friend of his youth was the actor Denys Blakelock, who was gay. Writing years later of their relationship, Olivier admitted he "embraced this unaccustomed happiness with an innocent young gratitude".
The night before Olivier's first marriage, in 1930, to actress Jill Esmond, a lesbian, Blakelock, who was to be his best man, climbed into Olivier's bed, where Blakelock's hands "strayed". Olivier admitted this but insisted that full sex didn’t happen.
Just before his marriage to Esmond, Olivier met Noël Coward, who gave him a contract to play the second male lead, supporting Coward & Gertrude Lawrence in Coward's new play Private Lives.
At their first meeting, Coward was sitting up in bed wearing Japanese silk pajamas, finishing his breakfast. He called Olivier "Larry", Olivier called him "Noël", & the men were soon on very familiar terms.
Doubts have been cast on the possibility of a sexual relationship between Coward & Olivier, but Coward admitted that it was "love at first sight" & that sexual dalliances occurred between them "with some regularity".
Coward: "At the age of 23, Larry was the most staggeringly beautiful creature I ever saw in my life, but although he was struggling to be what he thought of as 'normal', he had a puppy-like acquiescence to all experiences."
In spite of his liaison with Coward, Olivier's marriage to Jill Esmond went ahead, though it seems likely that she made some sort of pre-marital admission of her own inclinations towards women.
The marriage was doomed. Olivier had the beautiful 22 year old actress- Vivien Leigh, who would become his nemesis, & he met a most unlikely homosexual partner, Henry Ainley.
Ainley was a 57 year old married actor & father, who had appeared with Olivier in the 1936 film of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Ainley fell in love & lust with Olivier. In a letter he wrote: "How Jill must hate me, taking you away from her!" But by that time, Olivier didn't need to be taken away. His marriage had died with an ambitious Vivien Leigh on the prowl, who waged a very determined campaign of seduction.
Esmond divorced Olivier, citing adultery in 1940, naming Vivien Leigh. She was awarded custody of their 3 year old son- Tarquin. Leigh’s husband- Leigh Holman, also filed for divorce, citing Larry. Vivien Leigh became the second Mrs. Laurence Olivier.
Even before that, however, during the Hollywood filming of her Oscar winning role as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, Vivien had exhibited the first symptoms of manic depression, her illness turned their marriage into a nightmare for Olivier.
Leigh plagued by mental breakdowns & tortured by professional jealousy at Olivier's talent, became an alcoholic & often pursued total strangers as sexual partners.
Olivier continued to turn to men for sex & love. In 1940, he met American comic actor, Hollywood film star- Danny Kaye, & the 2 men started a long, fairly open for the times, flamboyant relationship.
Coward was appalled to witness the Olivier & Kaye openly exchanging French kisses in public. Coward despised Kaye, & he referred to him as "randy Dan Kaminski" (Daniel Kaminski was Kaye's real name).
In 1950, when the Oliviers returned to Hollywood for Leigh to film A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando, David Niven walked into the garden of their Hollywood mansion. Niven: “I discovered Brando & Larry swimming naked in the pool. Larry was kissing Brando. Or maybe it was the other way around. I turned my back to them & went back inside to join Vivien. I'm sure she knew what was going on, but she made no mention of it. Nor did I. One must be sophisticated about such matters in life."
As his marriage to Leigh was dying, Olivier was performing, in Spartacus, with the most notorious gay scene Hollywood had ever filmed. As the Roman General Marcus Crassus, the nearly naked Olivier is suggestively bathed by his nearly naked slave, played by the heartily heterosexual Tony Curtis.
The scene was regarded as so shocking in 1960 that it was cut from the final film. It was not reinstated until 1991, 2 years after Olivier's death, when one of his best mimics- Sir Anthony Hopkins dubbed this pointedly bisexual dialogue: "Some people like oysters, some people like snails. I like oysters & snails."
Leigh divorced Olivier in 1961, devastated that as one of the most beautiful women in the world, she was being replaced by Joan Plowright, an attractive & excellent actress, but not a great beauty.
Olivier & Plowright married in1961. With Plowright, Olivier found deep inner contentment, peace of mind & stability. They had a son & 2 daughters. When Olivier sought the attention of a handsome young man, Plowright had the prudence & tact to ignore it.
After Olivier's death in 1989, his official biographer- Terry Coleman, asked Plowright if he had had homosexual affairs. Plowright: "If he did, so what?"
Tarquin Olivier, Larry's oldest son wanted to censor the homosexual revelations in Coleman's bio & pressured Plowright into withdrawing her permission. She refused.
Olivier was the greatest actor of the 20th century, & his widow Plowright had the loving intuition & courage to allowing his complex life to be viewed with patience & without prejudice.
Olivier was born 105 years ago, on this day- May 22nd. My favorite Olivier film role is in A Little Romance (1979).