August 21, 2014

Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights


Naturally, I had to follow up my post on a soon-to-be Academy darling with an even bigger soon-to-be Academy darling. 1939 marked Laurence Olivier’s official star-is-born moment after having had two previously botched attempts at fame in Hollywood. With his (faux?) tan, chiseled jawline and a cleft that looks as though it could swallow you whole with the right camera angle, Olivier was first a heartthrob before becoming the respected thespian known the world over. It is said that Olivier wasn’t above being full of himself when it came to acting and comparing himself to his contemporaries, and he hadn’t much respect for fellow co-star Merle Oberon, whom he called a “silly little amateur”. Now with an ego like that and the fact that he is the Sir Laurence Olivier--the second most nominated male actor in Academy history and the man tied for the most Best Actor nominations--needless to say I came into Wuthering Heights expecting to be astonished by a display of top notch acting.

For the most part, I really did enjoy roughly half of Olivier’s performance—that being I was quite impressed by his line delivery. The man has got such a soulful and heartfelt speaking voice. Olivier speaks with the utmost passion and it’s crazy how he could make the most sonically twisted lines sound like some sort of improvisational poetry to the ear. (re: “You loved me! What right to throw love away for the poor, fancy thing you felt for him? For a handful of worthiness?” or "If he loved you with all the power of his soul, for a whole lifetime he couldn't love you as much as I do in a single day") For example, when Cathy arrives back at Wuthering Heights after having spent quite some time at Edgar’s home, we see Heathcliff gaze at her longingly and ask, “why did you stay so long at that house?” Such a simple question and yet Olivier injects it with the utmost delicate emotion—moments like that I just adored. His recitation and speech is one of the best I’ve heard out of the 1930's. Yet the emoting aspect of Olivier's performance is where he lost me. He doesn’t express himself facially in a manner that matches the fervency of which he speaks. I found him to be curiously wooden at times, a vacant visual contrasted against flowery vocals. I know Heathcliff is supposed to be sulking and scowling a lot of the time, but in the more tender scenes—such as any of the ones where he and Cathy discuss their love, or his very last scene with Cathy—Olivier can’t seem to properly project the meaning of the words onto his face, and it just feels like he's doing a questionable job at showing the simplest feelings of love. At times he's kind of just ogling at Oberon but is too blank for my tastes. It’s as if Olivier doesn’t realize or hasn’t adjusted to the fact that he’s on camera and instead thinks he’s performing on stage and that I’m watching him from the balcony. However, the scenes after Heathcliff has returned where he's being cruel to Cathy or Hindley works wonderfully—I found him perfectly solemn, icy, calculating, and cutting all at once. Despite my qualms, it's still a passionate and watchable debut by a man who would become a legend, and one that gets a firm


  1. He's a great Heathcliff, but his chemistry with Oberon is not that good. Anyway, I hope you like him in Rebecca.

    1. I didn't really mind his chemistry with Oberon. It's funny because I thought Oberon's performance was absolutely fantastic! And Rebecca is my most anticipated watch from 1940.

  2. I haven't seen this, but I would never go into an Olivier performance with high expectations. He was fine in both Rebecca and Hamlet, but nothing to blow my mind (I think those are the only ones of his nominations I've seen, to my deep shame). He definitely had a distinctive way of acting...

    I doubt he'd end up winning any of your Best Actor years as you go through them, I just don't see the two of you really connecting. :)

    How was the film? I remember liking the book, but the casting for Heathcliff is so tricky.
    Rebecca is quite something, but I already knew the twist when I first saw it (from the book). If you don't know the twist, maybe the impact will be bigger. :)

    1. Huh. That's interesting. I'm mostly intrigued by him because he's such an iconic actor. That would be terribly disappointing if I ended up not giving him a single win out of his 9 Best Actor noms.

      I really did like the film quite a bit! Never read the book, but I looked up the plot and it's nothing like the film, but I'm oddly okay with how the film's narrative turned out. Oberon is excellent and Geraldine Fitzgerald is a force to be reckoned with as well, so that was a pleasant surprise :)

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    3. I stand corrected, because I forgot about Sleuth and he's fantastic in it. But then again, so are Caine and of course Brando. so...

      I hear he's good in Entertainer too, but who knows.
      1948 has what it looks like a terribly weak Actor line-up, so yeah, maybe he'd win there. :)

  3. I was lucky enough to first see this when I was still a teenager, free of cynicism, and ripe to be engulfed by its wonderful romantic sweep.

    Several critics, and I agree, singled out the conscientious work of David Niven and Geraldine Fitzgerald for bringing such richer dimension to Edgar and Isabella than Bronte had intended, and they do. In fact, no one is bad in this; even the child actors are superb.

    Whenever it was I first got a look at the full nominations for 1939, and saw Merle Oberon wasn't among them, I'm sure my jaw dropped. She and Olivier are outstanding as the troubled lovers, and this film will never, ever lose its power.