On November 5, 2015, Vivien Leigh, my 8th most favourite actress would have celebrated her 102nd birthday. Even if she left us at the young age of 53, that’s not a reason why my friend Joey from Wolffian Classic Movies Digest wouldn’t honour her with a blogathon! Vivien Leigh is also known for having been married to the great Laurence Olivier during 20 years. Their marriage wasn’t always a bed of roses, but they certainly were one of the most iconic and best looking English couples.
This week’s blogathon will honour Vivien Leigh’s films, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s films or if we wish, movies starring only Laurence Olivier. That’s what I decided to do by choosing Spartacus. I love Vivien and it will be a pleasure for me to read the entries honouring her films, but I chose Spartacus because I knew that I was about to read the book “I Am Spartacus!”. It’s about the making of the film (a big challenge, believe me) and it was written by Kirk Douglas, who plays the title role and who also was its executive producer. So, I said to myself, it would be a good occasion to re-watch the film and write about it for the blogathon. This would be my first review of a Stanley Kubrick’s film! However, this is probably the less “Kubrickian” film of Kubrick’s filmography. Anyway, if you haven’t read this book yet, do it. It’s fascinating. Kirk Douglas certainly is a great storyteller. He was no less than 95 when he wrote it!
Spartacus is a 1960’s film based on the novel by Howard Fast, itself based on the real-life of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a gladiator slave who leads a slave revolt during the Roman Empire era. As a matter of fact, there’s a little difference between the film and the real life event: in the film, the revolt is led by Spartacus, but in reality, he wasn’t the leader, only one of its most important figures. He died while fighting in a battle. In the film, Laurence Olivier plays the role of Crassus, a general who leads an army against Spartacus. He is the mean one. The film regroups many other famous actors such a Jean Simmons as Varinia, Spartacus’s wife; Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Bataliutus, owner of a gladiators school, Tony Curtis as Antoninus, a musician slave and friend of Spartacus; Charles Laughton as Gracchus, a statesman; John Gavin as a young Julius Caesar; John Dall as Glabrus, a Roman military commander; Woody Strode as a gladiator and John Ireland as Crixus, a gladiator and friend of Spartacus. That was a sensational cast and many of these actors were simply amazing.
But let’s get back to Larry… When Kirk Douglas had this crazy project idea to produce a film out of Fast’s novel, he first had to go through a complex pre-productions work, including finding a great cast. One of the first actors to be cast was Laurence Olivier. This one first thought he would be cast as Spartacus, but Kirk had in mind to cast him as Crassus. Here, Kirk made the great decision because he was perfect in the role. Spartacus was played by Kirk Douglas himself, and that was probably THE role of his career. Olivier was very motivated by the project. He was often willing to give his ideas (which were not always considered as Kirk had the last word. Well, partly), but except that, he also was one of the actors with whom Kirk had the least problems. Jean Simmons, who was marvelous in this film, wasn’t either someone who had the habit of causing trouble on the set. However, as much as they were great in the film, working with Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov was a harder task.
Laurence Olivier also was a helpful man. He helped Tony Curtis improve his acting. Many movie directors were considered to direct the film, including Laurence Olivier himself. He also was known to be a great movie director with movies such as Hamlet or Henry V. However, Olivier refuses this responsibility, considering it would be too demanding to combine both acting and direction. He often did this with his previous films, but Spartacus was a huge production. I sometimes wonder how Kirk Douglas managed to reach to this impressive result. Let’s not forget, Spartacus was made during the end of the Maccarthysme area. Both Dalton Trumbo (the screenwriter) and Howard Fast were on the blacklist and Kirk Douglas was lucky not to be part of it. That’s the main factor why making this film was such a challenge.
During the making of this film, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s marriage was coming to an end. This was certainly not a happy moment of their life, but Laurence, even tormented by the events, remained professional and worked hard. He gave us one of its greatest performances. Wearing a fake nose for this film and being already 53, he still looked quite handsome and very charismatic. I always thought there was something very “poetic” about his acting, even when he plays a villain like Crassus. He always seems to be soft, even when he screams. I think this is due to his unique gaze and his perfectly formed face. He is an actor who shares a lot of emotions only with his eyes. There are some moments in the film where we say to ourselves that he doesn’t look so mean. But this is a clever trick to fool us and another proof of his great acting abilities. Laurence Olivier had an important formation is Shakespearian theatre and that certainly helped him to also become a great on-screen actor. However, Laurence knew how to share thing and balance stage and screen acting. In other words, he doesn’t act too theatrically in Spartacus and remains natural, which is what a movie needs.
I read some Laurence Olivier’s quotes on IMDB and, oh dear, the man was really motivated by his work. He was passionate.
“Without acting, I cannot breathe.”
“If I wasn’t an actor, I think I’d have gone mad. You have to have extra voltage, some extra temperament to reach certain heights. Art is a little bit larger than life – it’s an exhalation of life and I think you probably need a little touch of madness.”
I also think this following quote describes perfectly his acting method I was talking about sooner:
“Acting is illusion, as much illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real.”
In Spartacus, Laurence Olivier plays a cold man, but we see, toward the end, that he’s capable of love. He acts the scenes with Jean Simmons with a great subtlety. He wasn’t “too much”. Well, is Crassus really in love with her? Probably not as much as Spartacus is. So, Olivier knew perfectly how to keep a certain modesty in his acting, which was perfect for his scenes with Jean Simmons. Also, one of my favourite “Laurence Olivier’s moment” in this film is when he discovers that his slave, who had escaped, Antonionus, is a member of the revolve and then recognizes Spartacus. His facial expression here is so well calculated. He doesn’t show too much and it’s hard to know what he is thinking. That makes Crassus a very mysterious character. He’s not completely black or white.
Spartacus is one of those great epic films. I can say, without hesitation, that it is my favourite peplum. The great Howard fast music makes a good introduction and, all through the film, we are captivated by the actor’s performances. Even if this shooting was a long and hard work, it’s easy to notice that all of them, and not only Lawrence Olivier, gave everything they had for their performances. Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Reading Douglas’ book made me admire this film even more because it was such a big and impossible project, but they went through it and the result is unique. Only one was not satisfied with it: Stanley Kubrick. But this one was a last-minute requested director, as Anthony Mann’s scenes did not please Douglas. Only the beginning of the film, that takes place in a stone quarry, was kept from Mann’s shooting. But it’s obvious that Spartacus was Kubrick’s less personal film. When we watch it, it’s hard to believe that it was directed by him. It would be more accurate to say that it’s Kirk Douglas’ film. The man put so much energy in it. He deserves a lot of credits. Kirk Douglas has previously acted in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It’s the quality of this film that gave the idea to the actor-producer to give the directing tasks to the New York-born director. Despite the few disagreements, and even if it was the last film they made together, I think, Douglas believed in Kubrick. Well, he was to become of the most celebrated directors of movie history.
Spartacus on-the-set pictures are some of my favourites “on the set pictures”. Here are some I love:
Spartacus is such a fascinating film. It was a box office success and it’s certainly timeless.
If you wish to read more about Laurence Olivier’s and Vivien Leigh’s films, I invite you to read the other entries of this awesomely nice blogathon. Of course, thanks to Wolffian Classics Movies Digest for hosting it! Also, a very happy birthday to our beloved Vivien Leigh. ❤