Magazine article History Today

Five Oscars for Olivier's Hamlet

Magazine article History Today

Five Oscars for Olivier's Hamlet

Article excerpt

March 24th, 1949

The British film magnate J. Arthur Rank, who put up close to 600,000 [pounds sterling] to finance Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, was not unnaturally nervous about how much of it he would ever see back. All visitors were excluded from the set, but at last Olivier let one of Rank's executives see half an hour of the rushes. `What's it like?' asked the anxious Rank when the minion returned. `It's wonderful, Mr Rank,' the executive said, `you wouldn't know it was Shakespeare.'

Olivier had begun to plan the film early in 1947. The play was cut by a good two hours (ditching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as Fortinbras in the process), shot in black-and-white and given a Freudian slant, emphasising Hamlet's incestuously Oedipal feelings for his mother, played by Eileen Herlie, who at twenty-seven was actually thirteen years younger than Olivier.

Filming began at the studios in Denham in the spring and took six months (Olivier was knighted, meantime, in June). It was no picnic and the atmosphere, as scenes of unrelenting gloom were shot for days on end, propelled by Olivier's autocratic drive and intensity, was far from carefree. Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh, had assumed she would play Ophelia, but Olivier told her she was too old at thirty-three. She pointed out that he was virtually forty himself, but he hired the eighteen-year-old Jean Simmons for the part. She required intensive coaching from Olivier himself. …

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