Playing to the Rafters: Celebrating Olivier, Welles, and Laughton

Today on TCM, three of the all-time great hams grace your tv screen all day.  There’s Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and Charles Laughton, three actors who would have been comfortable walking around with slices of pineapple on their backs and a cherry glaze on their head because they seriously knew how go for broke when “go for a few pennies” was all that was required.   Their most famous and revered performances are, notably, their most restrained (we’re speaking relatively here) but my favorites have nothing to do with restraint and everything to do with blowing it all wide open.  Since these three dominate the day, and pretty much dominated every movie they ever appeared in, here are my favorite performances by all three.

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Laurence Olivier won Best Actor in one of the movies featured today, Hamlet, which he also directed and which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1948.  Of course, we all know Humphrey Bogart deserved it more for Treasure of the Sierra Madre (agree with me on this and nobody gets hurt) but it was the Academy’s way of dolling itself up with the legitimacy of Shakespeare because members of the Academy always think that what they’re honoring makes them look better if it has some whiff of nobility to it.  It doesn’t but that’s neither here nor there.  Olivier already had a huge reputation for playing Shakespeare by this point, both on the stage and on film, and there was no way the Oscars were going to pass up the chance to give him the top honor for playing the all-time “if you want to be a serious Shakespearean actor, you must play this part” role of Hamlet but, like I said, Bogart/ Dobbs.  End of argument (and if you’ve already noted in your head that Bogart wasn’t even nominated for Madre, you can agree with me that the Academy can be dim, dim place indeed).  What they really needed to honor Olivier for was all the crazy crap he did over the years.  Seriously, just give him one big Oscar, which they did, but instead of making it a lifetime honorary thing, make it specifically for all the times he entertained by simply overdoing it.  The Entertainer, Bunny Lake is Missing, Sleuth, Marathon Man, and Boys from Brazil, are all performances I cherish much more than Hamlet because in all of them, Olivier’s main motivation seems to be “let me act the hell outta this damn thing!”  I wish he’d done it more.  Oh, wait, he did!  In every other movie!  And I’m not knocking him at all.  I’m an actor (just ask Andrew, who comments here and once tried to direct me before I got cast in something else and bailed on him – um, sorry Andrew) and I loathe actors who spend all their time going for that barely discernible, play it way under the radar performance.  To hell with that, show me what you got!  Olivier did, time and time again.

Which brings me to our next contestant, Orson Welles, whose most famous portrayal of Charles Foster Kane, in the little known indie flick, Citizen Kane, is also played big because Welles was no fool and knew that Kane was a Big character with a capital B (which is why I used a capital B when I wrote “big”).  You don’t play Kane small, you play him big and I personally would have given the award to Welles that year for every single thing he did with that movie, certainly over the Coop and his “oh my God, please stop acting so folksy” performance in Sergeant York.  But I digress.  Have you ever seen Welles in The Long Hot Summer?  He’s awful!  But he’s awful in such a magnificent way!  It’s all over the top southern bluster and drawl and, damn, you can barely understand a word that comes out of his mouth.  But when Orson decided to go with a performance, he went with it and what I’m getting around to here is this:  I’m eternally grateful to any actor that decides on a characterization, and come hell or high water, goes with it.  Like Marlon Brando in Sayonara.  Ever seen our very own Robert Osborne talk about that one after it plays on TCM?  After it aired last time he said, “No one thought Brando’s character should have a southern accent, except Brando.”  Well, he did a better job with it than Orson, but Orson’s is a hell of a lot more entertaining.  And how about his Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil?  That’s a big, bluster filled performance that does work on every level.  It was another example of how sometimes it’s worth it to hit or miss because even though you may miss on some, like The Long Hot Summer, when you hit, like Touch of Evil, it makes it all worthwhile.  But you can’t do that unless you swing to hit it out of the park every time.

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And that takes us around to Charlie.  Charles Laughton swung for the bleachers every single turn at bat.  No one ever wrote “Laughton plays the character almost imperceptibly, keeping his secrets guarded, making subtle, nuanced gestures and glances, almost undetectable to the viewer but just enough to hint at something deeper.”  Ha, ha, no one ever wrote anything close to that regarding Charles Laughton!  Laughton won his Oscar for playing Henry VIII in The Private Lives of Henry VIII but he gave us so many more, much more, entertaining performances.  So many that it’s hard to pick a favorite.  And since most people, at least among classic cinema fans, know so many of his movies, I’ll go with a lesser known one, White Woman, from 1933, starring Laughton, Carole Lombard, and Charles Bickford.  It’s not a movie a lot of folks know (maybe because it’s not that great) and for years I was the only critic listed on its IMDB page with a review (there have since been four more added, dammit) but if you get a chance, watch it, because the performances are fantastic.  At the center, it’s got a great mustache-twirling performance by Laughton and the best part is, just now, when I wrote “mustache-twirling” I wasn’t being figurative!  He literally twirls his mustache when he thinks of nefarious schemes.  I think I like every one of Laughton’s performances and, unlike Welles (Long Hot Summer) or Olivier (49th Parallel), I don’t think he ever missed.  He wasn’t just the home run king, he batted a thousand.

So today, sit back if you can and watch three glorious actors take the stage (well, okay, Laughton’s at 3:00 in the morning and it’s one of his lesser efforts, Rembrandt, but still, he is there).  They play it big and don’t hold anything back.  Sometimes that doesn’t work but with these three, it almost always did.

14 Responses Playing to the Rafters: Celebrating Olivier, Welles, and Laughton
Posted By tdraicer : May 22, 2015 3:34 pm

Greg, great post.

Olivier deserved the Oscar for Shakespeare, just not for his Hamlet (which I like well enough) but rather for Richard III (with Othello and Henry V close behind).

I think Laughton’s greatest single moment onscreen wasn’t: his speech to the Senate in the unfinished I Claudius, fortunately available in the documentary The Epic That Never Was (I think I’m remembering the title correctly).

I agree Welles should have won everything for Kane.

And as an actor myself (community theater level) I agree that critics who throw out the word “ham” as an insult are only revealing their own shallow understanding of the craft. Going big takes both nerve and skill, and when it works (and with these three it worked more often than not) the payoff is memorable indeed.

Posted By Ben Martin : May 22, 2015 4:06 pm

I, like you, tend to enjoy when GOOD actors pull out all the stops and ham it up – to show off? to experiment? to surprise us as I think Welles liked to do?
Your three examples above are good choices to underscore your point.
I MIGHT argue that as Dr. Moreau (which you picture above), Laughton uncharacteristically pulls way, way in. And actually its one of my favorite Laughton performances. Normally when you tell a born actor such as Laughton that he’s to play a mad scientist, you might expect him to roll up his sleeves and let us have it, maniacal laughter and all. But through most of his performance he is much quieter than you’d expect, and it works so well. Compare his line “do you know what it means to feel like God?” with Colin Clive’s similar utterance a few years earlier as Frankenstein. Still, Laughton normally spread it on pretty thick, which is one reason why I love his body of work.

Posted By Andrew : May 22, 2015 6:26 pm

I was able to introduce my son the The Hunchback of Notre Dame last night, thanks to TCM. Every time I watch it I am reminded how great a performance that is. I am not sure if any other actor can be both over the top and subtle at the same time.

(and PS you are forgiven)

Posted By Emgee : May 22, 2015 7:41 pm

Bogart didn’t get the Oscar for Sierra Madre because he played a despicable character; his character in African Queen was grouchy but had a good heart. Playing villains didn’t earn you Oscars…..then.

Posted By Autist : May 22, 2015 7:49 pm

I couldn’t agree more! This is one reason I’m so fond of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, because the acting is so much more theatrical than what you usually get from Hollywood. One of my pet peeves is critics who seem to only appreciate understated performances, though I can appreciate them, too–Steve McQueen, for instance. Another great theatrical actor, often unfairly accused of being a ham, was Vincent Price. Price was in a lot of bad movies, but he’s usually the best thing in them.

Posted By LD : May 22, 2015 8:04 pm

Actually, I enjoy Welles in THE LONG HOT SUMMER. According to the backstory, he mumbled his lines intentionally, sometimes used make-up that was too dark, and struggled with both the heat and keeping his fake nose from coming off. Hey, it works for me.

Posted By gregferrara : May 22, 2015 8:47 pm

…critics who throw out the word “ham” as an insult are only revealing their own shallow understanding of the craft. Going big takes both nerve and skill, and when it works (and with these three it worked more often than not) the payoff is memorable indeed.

Tdraicer gets it right which is why I’ve been trying for years to co-opt the word with an entirely positive spin. I think being a ham is great. It doesn’t mean the performance will always be good, but it’s a risk and shows a lot of nerve to be a ham.

Autist, that’s why I would also classify Vincent Price as a ham, especially with Roger Corman, but I mean it in an entirely positive way.

Posted By gregferrara : May 22, 2015 8:50 pm

Ben and Andrew, you both make good points that one can be a great ham and still be subtle in one’s bigness. Again, that’s why the “ham” moniker is so misunderstood/misused. It takes great skill to do it right.

Also, speaking of HUNCHBACK just reminds me how many great performances of Laughton’s really could have won an Oscar. Robert Donat was a great actor too but MR CHIPS (He won the Oscar for it in 1939 when HUNCHBACK was released) just doesn’t compare.

Posted By gregferrara : May 22, 2015 8:53 pm

Emgee, it’s true, they didn’t but at least they nominated them (Cagney for ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES or Charles Boyer, totally evil and unredeemable in GASLIGHT). I mean, how can you watch Bogart give that performance and not even nominate him. It blows my mind.

Posted By gregferrara : May 22, 2015 8:53 pm

And Welles wasn’t nominated for a supporting Oscar for THE THIRD MAN. More insanity.

Posted By gregferrara : May 22, 2015 8:55 pm

LD, I enjoy him a lot in THE LONG HOT SUMMER, too, I just don’t think he really succeeded but he failed so much better than almost any other actor succeeds. And if you think he succeeded, I can totally understand that, given what I’m writing about here today. Maybe if I watch it again, I’ll think so, too.

Posted By george : May 22, 2015 9:39 pm

COMPULSION (1959), where Welles plays a character based on Clarence Darrow, is an underrated movie that should be better known. And Welles is great.

Posted By Autist : May 22, 2015 10:03 pm

I agree with George about “Compulsion”.

Posted By tolly devlin : May 24, 2015 8:45 pm

Welles & Laughton are two actors I always enjoy. Love Laughton as Quasimodo & his over the top performance in Jamaica Inn (“CHADWICK”) was the best thing about that movie (which Hitchcock detested). I’ve always had a special affection for the scene in Touch of Evil where Quinlan enters the suspects apartment & wonders did anyone think to save him a donut or a sweet roll. Welles didn’t do too well with the irish accent in Lady From Shangai but he was entertaining.And I agree Bogart as Fred C. deserved an Oscar.

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