© 2005 John Murphy
Many excellent actors have tackled that “foul lump of deformity,” the hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester, a.k.a. Richard III. Among them such acting greats as Ian Mckellen and Al Pacino. Say “Richard the Third,” though, and I immediately think of a human spider with hooded eyes, a pageboy haircut, sharp nose, and halting chicken legs in black tights. In other words, I think of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III.
This ranks as one of Lord Laurence’s greatest performances, if not the greatest. It’s certainly his most darkly sardonic and deliciously self-confident. Olivier was really at the top of his game when he made this movie in the mid-fifties, and his performance has the joie de vivre of an actor at the height of his powers. I was in a somewhat morose mood the other day when I popped this into the DVD player, and Olivier’s infectiously energetic performance transported me to another world. Richard’s a spiritual cousin to such scene-stealing villains as Iago of Othello and Edmund of King Lear, and, like them, he’s impossible to resist. This Richard III embraces his own superficiality, takes malevolent delight in his clear-cut villainy. It’s refreshing. Olivier’s overt theatricality extends even to the Candyland sets and costumes. Richard III is a lavish, polychromatic spectacle as artificial as Olivier’s own surface-based acting aesthetic. And I love it. I guess I’m like Lady Anne: falling for Richard against my better judgment.
Olivier suits his action to the word. Richard III is relatively early Shakespeare, and the play seems like a showcase for the Bard’s own burgeoning virtuosity as a playwright. As such, Richard dominates. Shakespeare’s drunk on his ability to fashion such a bracingly original personality. Take for example the seduction of Lady Anne. Richard has killed her father and husband, but that doesn’t stop him from putting the moves on her. She calls him a “minister of hell” and “lump of foul deformity.” But is Richard discouraged? Not a jot. He persists in his pursuit, claiming “’Twas your beauty set me on,” and so forth. Some more sugar-sweet words and Lady Anne folds. This is Shakespeare showing off, no doubt. “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?” Richard wonders aloud to himself. “Was ever woman in this humour won?” I highly doubt it. It’s awesome to behold. Meanwhile, my legs go liquid asking a girl out to coffee! I should take a cue from Richard’s indomitableness in the face of bleak odds.
Olivier surrounds himself with an all-star cast. Sir John Gielgud, he of the honey-dipped vocal chords, cuts a noble figure as Richard’s doomed brother, Clarence, but is dispatched (memorably, in a barrel of wine) relatively early in the film. Claire Bloom, beautiful, brings poignancy to the underwritten Lady Anne. Sir Ralph Richardson is excellent as the politicking Buckingham.
Yet supporting characters fade into the periphery and all that’s left is the highly quotable, irresistibly charismatic hunchback. Richard III is kind of like Hamlet’s inverse: he doesn’t know how not to act. He’s like a shark that’d die if he stopped moving, and he consumes everyone in his path to the crown. Even on the battlefield, in the face of overwhelming odds, Richard goes out with a bang: “My kingdom for a horse!”
Richard may lack the dimensions Shakespeare would later give Iago and Edmund, but his very one-dimensionality becomes a source of strength. How else could he pull off a line like “Anne my wife hath bid this world good night” and still keep the audience’s sympathy (or at least interest)? It’s because we know we’re watching unapologetic melodrama, not a history lesson. In this vein, Olivier deliberately imposes an almost fairy-tale spectacle on the play. Some accuse Olivier of “theatricality” and I wonder, when the theater’s this good, who’s complaining?