When it comes to being the standard for bringing the work of William Shakespeare to the big screen, Laurence Olivier was that standard bearer for decades. While he made only four motion picture adaptations of the Bard’s plays, Olivier’s work on them have stood out when compared to other film versions and directors who have done their own interpretations. These films were done over the course of a 21-year period, and led Olivier to scoring seven Academy Award nominations and several notable wins – which would add to his growing reputation as a defining force in British film.
1944: HENRY V (Best Picture and Actor nominee, Special Academy Award winner)
While Olivier first appeared in a Shakespeare adaptation in the 1936 version of the comedy As You Like It (which spawned an Oscar-nominated role in Elisabeth Bergner’s Rosaline), this was the first major version of a Shakespeare play he helmed exclusively as director and producer. Olivier also gave the ultimate Bard treatment with the action beginning and ending at the famous Globe Theatre, where the playwright staged many of his great works. His hard work earned Olivier nominations for his acting and producing, but was defeated by Leo McCarey’s feel-good dramedy Going My Way and its leading man Bing Crosby. There would be a consolation prize: Olivier earned a Special Academy Award for his work in bringing Henry V to the screen.
1948: HAMLET (Best Picture and Actor winner, Best Director nominee)
This may not have been the warts-and-all Hamlet later delivered by Kenneth Branagh in 1996 with its four-hour running time, or the modern-day 2000 version with Ethan Hawke reciting “To be or not to be” in a Blockbuster video store, but Olivier’s cinematic interpretation of the melancholy Dane was for many years the most successful Shakespeare film of its time. To make his Hamlet workable for moviegoers of the time, Olivier proceeded to cut almost two hours of the Bard’s text to keep the story going – daunting considering the epic journey the title character undergoes to get revenge on the royal uncle who murdered his father. Even as Shakespeare purists were left shaking their heads over the deletions made, Olivier did his job – his Hamlet was a success, and earned him three Academy Award nominations. While he lost the directing prize to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘s John Huston, he scored the two prizes that mattered the most: Best Actor for his performance in the title role, and Best Picture as the film’s producer.
1955: RICHARD III (Best Actor nominee)
Before Ian McKellen and Al Pacino graced the screen to portray the hunchbacked king who schemes his way to the top of the British kingdom, Olivier managed to deliver a stunning turn in the title role for this 1955 adaptation. For this film version, Olivier scored some highly-coveted talent in fellow knights Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson and future Oscar winner John Gielgud as Richard’s doomed brother George, Duke of Clarence. In 1956, Olivier’s Richard made its way to American cinemas one year after its release and scored another Best Actor nomination for his work. While he had stiff competition in Kirk Douglas, James Dean and Rock Hudson who all delivered strong dramatic roles in Lust for Life and Giant, they and Olivier were defeated by Yul Brynner for the romantic musical The King and I.
1965: OTHELLO (Best Actor nominee)
The idea of a highly-esteemed actor such as Olivier appearing in blackface seems insane and controversial now, but in 1965, he did exactly that while portraying one of Shakespeare’s tragic figures in the Venetian Moor whose love for Desdemona is destroyed by jealousy and with tragic results. During the time of filming, Olivier was running the National Theatre as its artistic director, a role he took up during the theater’s founding in 1963. He also enlisted his fellow actors to appear, including three who would receive Oscar nominations for their efforts: Frank Finlay (Iago), Joyce Redman (Emilia) and Maggie Smith (Desdemona). Olivier himself also scored a Best Actor bid for his performance, but he was defeated in a surprising upset by Cat Ballou‘s Lee Marvin. While he continued to appear on film and television until his death in 1989 at age 82, Othello would be the last Shakespeare film Olivier would ever bring to the big screen.