Alec Guinness diaries reveal his deep distaste for Olivier

Feb 8, 2013

Stage and screen legend Olivier described as a great actor but an 'unpleasant and vindictive' man

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A DAY after the acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier was laid to rest, another great thespian Sir Alec Guinness described him as "an unpleasant and possibly even vindictive man", who had done his best to destroy the careers of some of his most illustrious peers.

The remark was included in Guinness's diaries which have been bought by the British Library for £320,000 and will soon be available to the public. The Times points out that the 100 volumes of the actor's diaries and 900 letters were available to Guinness's authorised biographer, Piers Paul Read, but the "extent of his denunciation of Olivier remained unpublished".

In an entry dated 12 July 1989, the day after Olivier's funeral, Guinness wrote that he admired the actor's "courage and skill" but then launched into what The Times calls "a stream of invective".

Guinness wrote: "Like so many people whose ambition drives them to great eminence, he had a cruel and destructive streak. Consciously or not he made attempts to destroy John Gielgud, [Michael] Redgrave, [Paul] Scofield and, if he had been given the chance, me."

Guinness, who died in 2000, also said Olivier – who is routinely described as one of the greatest theatre actors of the 20th century – was "self-serving". One of his tricks for, literally, turning the spotlight on himself was to get the stage lights "turned up a few points" when he made his entrance and dimmed again when he exited, Guinness wrote.

The two actors first met in 1935 in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Guinness wrote that Olivier's performance as Romeo was "arresting and beautiful", but said his turn as Romeo's friend Mercutio was "vulgar and gimmicky".

Guinness was also unimpressed by the famous blood-curdling howl Olivier emitted in the title role of the Old Vic's 1940s production of Oedipus Rex. To Guinness, it was simply "tiresome".

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Both were great. Guiness deeper, Olivier accoustically superior.