Dispatches | November 09, 2007

For the past three months, I’ve been romanced by a dead man. I met him this summer when I traveled to London to research for TMR at the British Library. There he was, dashing and handsome, in a folder of eight-by-ten glossies. And his entire life—his fears, hopes, ambitions, failures, and many successes—were available to me in the form of as-yet unbound manuscripts. Larkin doesn’t beguile. Hughes is too surly. Wilde has nothing left to give. But Laurence Olivier? I fell for him instantly. There’s so much of him to love—985 unpublished volumes, in fact.

I’ve always been susceptible to British charm. And Olivier’s personal papers, archived at the Library, are replete with it. In 1960, while rehearsing The Tumbler, a young Charlton Heston asked the older actor over a bottle of brandy how he dealt with negative reviews. Olivier patted him on the shoulder and said, “Laddie, it’s much more important and much harder, but you’ve got to learn to dismiss the good ones!” (He was always calling people “Laddie,” “Love,” “Darling” and “Dear Boy,” as only the English can.)

I’m sure people have become tired of my prefacing every story or insight with “Olivier says,” but I’m helpless to avoid it. After reading four biographies and his memoir and watching the Criterion collection of Hamlet, Richard III and Henry V, I have Olivier on the brain.

For one thing, Olivier loved cats. I love cats. Before getting his teeth fixed, he had a gap between his front teeth. And then when he became famous and had a little money, he loved expensive clothes wine, and food. Just like me.

His practical, no-nonsense approach to his art also appeals to me. He didn’t put much stock in intellectual talk. In fact, he believed that all talk and minimal rehearsal made very bad actors.

A. Alvarez believed that young writers are a promiscuous lot. We jump into bed with artists of the past and fall in lust. “Every so often serial promiscuity results in le coup de foudre: you hear a voice and recognize it and know it’s for you just as surely as you recognize Miss Right across the room before you’ve ever spoken to her.”

In college my husband had a crush on Faulkner.

“What did he offer you?” I asked.

“Rhythm, freedom, the ability to make a story out of nothing,” he said, a little lost in memory.

But the infatuation didn’t last. My husband’s love sickness for Faulkner was critical until the author in his later work started winging it on whiskey, his writing on auto pilot.  Speer decided that he merely liked him but didn’t want to be him.

A. Alvarez believes that literary infatuation, like youthful infatuation, doesn’t last. “And it’s hard to be friends afterwards.”

I’m not sure that I agree. As I am putting the finishing touches on the foreword to the Olivier feature that will be published in the winter issue, my love does seem to be waning, and I’ve already begun reading for my next TMR visual feature (a relationship I’m keeping secret for the moment). But end my friendship with Olivier? Never. I often think of him fondly, and we’ll always have our intimate time together in the reading room at the British Library.