Othello with Laurence Olivier is a filmed record of the theatrical production; it would be our loss if we waited for posterity to discover it. Olivier’s Negro Othello—deep voice with a trace of foreign music in it; happy, thick, self-satisfied laugh; rolling buttocks; grand and barbaric and, yes, a little lewd—almost makes this great, impossible play work. It has always made more than sense; now it almost makes sense, too—not only dramatic poetry, but a comprehensible play. Frank Finlay’s pale, parched little Iago is not a plotting maniac who’s lucky for theatrical convenience, but a man consumed by sexual jealousy and irrational hatred. And because Iago is consumed by sexual jealousy, he infects Othello with the same disease. Maggie Smith’s Desdemona is strong and quiet and willful enough to have wanted Othello and gone after him. And Othello, who thought himself almost accepted by these civilized whites, is destroyed by primitive, irrational forces in them that he has no knowledge of. His “civilization” is based on theirs and goes because he believed in theirs.
Olivier is the most physical Othello imaginable. As a lord, this Othello is a little vulgar—too ingratiating, a boaster, an arrogant man. Reduced to barbarism, he shows us a maimed African prince inside the warrior-hero, Iago’s irrationality has stripped him bare to a different kind of beauty. We are sorry to see it, and we are not sorry, either. To our eyes, the African prince is more beautiful in his isolation than the fancy courtier in his reflected white glory.
Part of the pleasure of the performance is, of course, the sheer feat of Olivier’s transforming himself into a Negro; yet it is not wasted effort, not mere exhibitionism or actor’s vanity, for what Negro actor at this stage in the world’s history could dare bring to the role the effrontery that Olivier does, and which Negro actor could give it this reading? I saw Paul Robeson and he was not black as Olivier is; Finlay can hate Olivier in a way Jose Ferrer did not dare—indeed did not have the provocation—to hate Robeson. Possibly Negro actors need to sharpen themselves on white roles before they can play a Negro. It is not enough to be: for great drama, it is the awareness that is everything.
Every time we single out the feature that makes Olivier a marvel—his lion eyes or the voice and the way it seizes on a phrase—he alters it or casts it off in some new role, and is greater than ever. It is no special asset, it is the devilish audacity and courage of this man. Olivier, who, for Othello, changed his walk, changed his talk, is a man close to sixty who, in an ordinary suit in an ordinary role, looks an ordinary man, and can look even smaller in a role like Archie Rice in The Entertainer. What is extraordinary is inside, and what is even more extraordinary is his determination to give it outer form. lie has never leveled off; he goes on soaring.
Olivier once said of his interpretation of Henry V: “When you are young, you are too bashful to play a hero; you debunk it. It isn’t until you’re older that you ran understand the pictorial beauty of heroism.” And perhaps there is a tendency for people to debunk the kind of heroism necessary to develop your art in a society that offers so many rewards and honors to those who give up and sell out early at the highest market price. One might suspect that in a democratic society the public is on better terms with the mighty after they have fallen. Our mass media are full of the once mighty: they are called “celebrities.” Olivier’s presence on the screen is the pictorial beauty of heroism. Perhaps that is why we may leave the photographed version of Othello with a sense of exaltation and the wonder of sheer admiration.
This Othello is history already; it’s something to remember. And Othello isn’t even much of a “movie.” Just a reasonably faithful (one assumes) record of a stage interpretation. After thirty-five years in movies and masterpiece upon masterpiece acclaimed in the theatre—every new season seems to bring the tidings that Olivier has exceeded himself as Oedipus, as Lear, in Chekhov—he still could not raise the money to do a real movie version of his Othello. And of his Macbeth, acclaimed as the greatest since— Macbeth, we have not even a record.
Olivier’s greatness is in his acting; as a movie director, he is merely excellent and intelligent. Yet his Shakespearean performances deserve—at the minimum—the kind of movie he or other talented directors might do, what he brought to Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III. It is a scandal, an indictment of Anglo-American civilization and values, that eight million dollars can go into a spy spoof, twelve into a comic chase, twenty-seven into a spectacle, and for Olivier in Othello, we and history must content ourselves with a quickie recording process. And yet the joke is on the spoofs, chases and spectacles. Othello lives.
Yes, it’s lovely that foundations give all that money to regional theatres, to training ballet students, to raising the pay of symphony orchestras, to encouraging the young and promising and possibly gifted, and that our government is talking about encouraging “standards of excellence”—that eerie schoolteacher’s terminology that suggests magical measuring sticks. But do artists have to aspire to “excellence” to get help? Where is the help when they have overachieved their promise? Where is the help when Orson Welles botched his great movie version of Othello for want of cash, when Olivier can only record a stage production on film? What, then, is the purpose of all the encouragement of “creativity”?
The movies, an art that people don’t have to be encouraged, prodded, or “stimulated” to enjoy, which they go to without the path being greased by education and foundations, are still at the mercy of the economics of the mass market, which have broken the heart of almost every artist who has tried to work in the movies.
McCall’s, March 1966