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Now and Then: Olivier and the Bard

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! April 26, 2013 at 3:03PM

"I can smile, and murder while I smile," confides that notorious noble, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Laurence Olivier), "and frame my face to all occasions." For Olivier, pronouncing "frame" like "feign," it's an auspicious beginning. In Shakespeare's words, he finds his performer's credo.

"Richard III," on these terms, achieves a powerful brew, and from the famed first monologue ("Now is the winter of our discontent...") Olivier fuses his performer's instinct with his director's intelligence. At the fifteenth-century coronation of Richard's brother, Edward IV, sumptuous color reigns -- the royal blues and crimsons of court standards, rich, velvety capes in navy and plum. Yet Richard is as dark as night, his chin-length, jet-black hair framing a ghostly face and cold eyes. He plots to seize the crown by any means necessary. "I am determined to prove the villain," he sneers.

As Amy Taubin notes in her liner notes for the film, the explanatory titles acknowledge that the real Richard III -- recently unearthed under a Leicester parking lot -- was a more complicated figure than the play portrays. But Olivier's more interested in exploring the roots of evil, and so, as the king's party departs, we're left with him in the dim palace hall. In a bravura gambit, he inches closer -- hobbling, "deform'd, unfinish'd" -- and looks us squarely in the eye. The camera becomes confidant, and we're suddenly complicit in what's coming. With cinema Olivier discovers how to sell the myth, which is just what Shakespeare was after. 

"Richard III" is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

This article is related to: Now and Then, DVD / Blu-Ray, Genres, Drama, Classics, Headliners, Directors, Reviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.