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New Olivier bio has no twist

The renowned biographer Philip Zeigler examines the life of the greatest British actor of the 20th century in Olivier.

What distinguishes his new work, claims renowned biographer Philip Zeigler, is that he’s managed to get his hands on a cache of candid conversations that Olivier taped for a ghost-written autobiography that was eventually abandoned.

While these do occasionally reveal Olivier’s intimate thoughts, the rest of the book, however, is a standard account of Olivier’s life, detailing his three marriages, his constant bickering with fellow actors and his theatrical and cinematic achievements.

What is perhaps most entertaining for the reader is the chronicling of his constant sniping at his co-stars. For example, Olivier claimed his attempts to impart acting skills to Marilyn Monroe in their 1957 collaboration The Prince and the Showgirl was akin to “teaching Urdu to a marmoset”.

Despite Zeigler’s untapped source materials, overall there are scarce few revelations. While fans of the history of theatre will probably be fascinated by this retelling of the Olivier legend, others may find it a bland succession of anecdotes.


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