Out of all his cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, I adore Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III most. Not only is it a gorgeous film with its rich color palette and cinematography giving every frame the feel of a medieval Book of Hours come to life, but it contains one of the finest villains in world literature, Shakespeare’s demonic interpretation of Richard III. Historically inaccurate in the extreme, true, but there is no denying the character’s popularity in Shakespeare’s body of work. Olivier’s Richard is a multilayered villain, a purely evil man who takes delight in his own villainy who becomes more loathsome and then vulnerable after he procures the crown. Like Macbeth, Richard becomes a paranoid wreck once he’s king and it is this that aids in his demise, but before that, he’s fun to watch, scheming and tricking less smart people.
Before I begin, I would like to say that this post will not be much of analysis of the character of Richard himself or the 1955 film adaptation, but of what makes Olivier’s interpretation of the character so successful.
Great versatility is required when playing Richard III, for the character himself is an actor of sorts, pretending to be a loving kinsman, a pious politician, a faithful friend, an ardent lover, or whatever else he needs to be to get what he wants, and he plays all these parts with great finesse and believability. We can understand why all his victims trust in him and why we the audience enjoy his awful antics: this Richard is as grand an actor as the man playing him. There’s no winking to the audience, no chuckling behind his fingers when his in-story audience is in the frame. He’s throws himself into every role with relish, making his evil palatable and entertaining as we watch amazed, seeing how he gets away with it all.
One of Richard’s most convincing roles is that of the lover and his success in this area is surprising given the way the other characters perceive him and even Richard himself claims he is not fit to be a lover in the play’s opening soliloquy. Richard is constantly described by the other characters as loathsome and ugly. Richard himself claims he is not “shaped for sportive tricks.” Yet his scenes with Lady Anne (played brilliantly by Claire Bloom) have an undeniable sexual charge. From the moment he pulls out the bedchamber line as she accuses him (correctly) of her husband’s murder, you can see Anne begin to succumb to his false vows of love and bold sensuality. As she walks away, she casts her eyes down for a moment, as though astonished by the feelings this horrid man arouses against her will. Just compare this with the same scene as interpreted in the 1912 version; here we see a rather repulsive caricature woo the enraged widow, appealing to her vanity and winning her over in a rather improbable manner.
Even the otherwise brilliant 1995 Ian Mckellen version cannot fully convince the audience of the seduction. Anne is so angry at the beginning of the sequence and swayed to affection for Richard much too quickly to make the scene wholly believable.
Really, the seduction scene in and of itself is ridiculous, yet Olivier makes us believe, not only due to his splitting the scene into two separate sequences, but also through his sexual magnetism, his matinee idol reading of the lines, and the pacing. It is death to make the scene go by so quickly. Of course, Bloom carries a lot of the weight too; we have to believe she is vulnerable enough to be seduced.
For the first half of the film, we, like Anne, find ourselves charmed by Richard despite our full knowledge of his wickedness. He addresses the audience directly as he shares his plans and mocks the other characters, allowing us have a rather intimate relationship with him. Though he runs the gamut of villainy, he does it with such energy and flair, bouncing about like a gleeful child in some instances, that one cannot help but enjoy watching him come closer to his goal.
The baffling thing is that once Richard gets that crown on his head, we don’t like him so much anymore and he becomes less fun as a character. During the coronation scene, Olivier eliminates the wicked gleam from Richard’s eye, drains all the evil charm from his demeanor. As he seats himself upon the throne, his face is stony and unpleasant, his back stiff; he seems nervous and unsure of himself.
In his excellent audio commentary for the Criterion release of the film, playwright Russell Lees speaks about the Richard/viewer relationship and how the dynamic shifts once Richard has achieved his goal of ascending the throne and betrays Lord Buckingham:
“[After fooling the crowd, they] all drop character, but Richard lets drop a second character: the part of Buckingham’s friend. And this is a surprise both to Buckingham and to us, the audience. We’ve been privy to Richard’s plans, but this is something he’s kept from us. I think it is at this point in the film that we as an audience begin to turn against Richard. We do feel Buckingham is a stand-in for us and we have been betrayed in the same way Buckingham has.”
If there is one flaw in Olivier’s version of the character, it is the excision of one key sequence, the aftermath of Richard’s post-Bosworth nightmare soliloquy. After being cursed by his victims one by one in a nightmare sequence, Richard is slightly shaken, but quickly gather composure as he speaks with his men who came running to his tent, alerted by his cries. Yet in the original play, Richard speaks to himself in the tent, suddenly aware of the evil within himself and frightened by it. For a moment, it seems as though he will repent, but in the end he realizes there is no turning back; he must fight to the bloody finish. This moment gives this gleeful villain a moment of depth and lends an air of tragedy to his inevitable demise. It was a mistake for Olivier to cut this sequence; no doubt, it would have enriched the film and given us the pleasure of seeing such a great actor perform one of Shakespeare’s finest soliloquies. Still, that does not prevent Olivier from bringing any sense of sadness to Richard’s end. Though he is ruthless and amoral, Richard’s intelligence and ambition remain impressive; that he uses these skills for evil and brings about his own demise grants a sense of tragedy to the character.
There have been great screen Richards and as long as the play is still relevant to our modern world, there will likely continue to be other great screen Richards as well. Still, Olivier’s performance is a hard one to top; not that it cannot be done, but for me at least. whenever I think of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is Olivier’s hawk-nosed villain which comes first to mind. If you have not seen this film, I suggest snapping up the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray or DVD release; pricey, but it comes with good bonus features and of course, this treasure of a performance.