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Not the Promis'd End

The Betsy directed by Daniel Petrie at the Sack Gary

By David B. Edelstein

Lord Laurence Olivier in Harold Robbins's "The Betsy?"

Lord Laurence Olivier in William Goldman's "The Marathon Man?"

Lord Laurence Olivier in Ira Levin's "The Boys From Brazil?"

"Is this the promis'd end?"--"King Lear," Act V, Scene III.

KATHERINE ROSS, decked out in plushy '30s garb, unsuspectingly climbs the stairs of Hardeman Manor. A lavish wedding reception is in full swing downstairs, and she has been sent to fetch her new father-in-law, Loren Hardeman (Laurence Olivier), who is late in coming down. Softly calling his name, she opens the door to his room and freezes. So does the audience. Propped up against the side of the bed is a petite French maid, her skirt over her head and her legs wrapped around the greatest actor in the world--the first director of Great Britain's National Theater, member of the British Parliament, now 70 years old--who is grunting and whacking away at her. "The Harold Robbins people," the ads for The Betsy tempt: "What you dream, they do." Not in my wildest nightmares have I ever dreamed anything like that.

Olivier may be the only reason for seeing The Betsy--which keeps threatening to be enjoyable garbage until you realize that it's over--but he's somehow lucky to pull it off while maintaining a modicum of dignity. The role, a pioneer auto industry tycoon, requires him to age from 45 to 85, but aside from hair color, there isn't much that can be done to erase the lines. Worse, he has an inadequate conception of an American accent; it spoiled his performance in Come Back, Little Sheba on television last month. Here he sounds Irish, Texan, forced and--although this may be the result of the worst job of post-synchronization since 1929--unintelligible. Olivier seems too intense sometimes, and overacts frequently.

Now for the good news: he's terrific. What it is about Olivier that makes him the least boring actor in the world? He has the courage and audacity to go a step beyond what you'd expect, or even desire of him, to keep pressing until something detonates, and to combine polish and technique with an edge that makes everything seem electrifyingly spontaneous. As the 85-year-old man who dreams of building the supercar that every American can own, Olivier takes the word "feisty" to new heights, and if it weren't so demeaning to see him play a variation on Granny Clampett at this stage of his career, you could enjoy the performance for its impudence. Even more brilliant are his quieter, serious moments, when this hackneyed material takes on larger dimensions. Perhaps the best scene in The Betsy occurs after Olivier has presented his son (Paul Rudd in an earnest performance) with wedding presents--some stocks in the company worth $27 million and a new car to be named after him: the Loren II. Alone at the evening's end, Olivier stumbles out to the new car and realizes that this present meant relatively little to Loren Jr. It wasn't the stocks that his son should have appreciated, Olivier says to himself, sitting in the driver's seat and clutching the wheel. "It wasn't the money. It was the car," and the word "car" becomes a gasp, a whine, a plea, a lost, dying sigh, a single syllable endowed with a lifetime of emotion, and as Olivier's head sinks down into the shadow of the steering wheel, John Barry's dignified music rises and the camera slowly dollies back to include the mansion and the grounds, and the image fades. It sounds schlocky, and I guess it is, but it works.

THE MOST ENJOYABLE part of reviewing something by Harold Robbins is seeing how many synonyms for the word "trash" you can think up without resorting to a thesaurus. Actually, the book on which the film was based wasn't even good bilge, and the screenwriters have been awfully faithful to the dull details. What keeps Robbins's readers interested in his non-characters is their sexual appetites, but the kind of graphic descriptions Robbins indulges in--those titillating, sizzling, tongue-wrapped-around-anything-that-moves scenes--are not exactly the stuff of "R" rated movies, and especially one with a cast this distinguished. (At least, going in they were distinguished.) Sure, there are two or three brief scenes of Godfather-style violence, but they are almost as sluggishly filmed as the sex scenes. That leaves the dialogue to pass the time, so we are treated to Olivier saying, after startling a skeptical Tommy Lee Jones with a finished engine for the dream car, "Did you think I was just an old man jerkin' off?" And poor Katherine Ross, who can't resist father-in-law Olivier after witnessing his potency with the French maid, crawls into bed with him and says, "I'm sorry, but I had to be close," and later, "I love you, Loren, even if I have to be damned for it."

The quality of performance varies wildly. Edward Herrmann is amusingly obnoxious as a company finance man, and Jones, as the racecar driver whom Olivier hires to supervise the building of the "Betsy," acts decently even if he projects no personality. Lesley-Anne Down, late of Upstairs, Downstairs, is not only ravishingly beautiful (and we see much of her), but speaks with that enticing British accent, which in a Harold Robbins film guarantees class. I have never seen Robert Duvall give a bad performance before, but here he acts alternately demented or disinterested. He rattles off paragraphs of exposition without a change of expression, and during several "tense" confrontations, his eyes wander. Even his moustache looks half-hearted.

Daniel Petrie, the director, keeps The Betsy on its lugubrious, though hardly lubricated, course; the solemnity of his touch earned unintentional laughs even from the audience I saw the film with, an unsophisticated bunch who wanted porn instead of corn. Petrie didn't even attempt to endow the cars with a mystical beauty that would explain the attraction and passion of men like Loren Hardeman Sr. Instead he gives us so many walks with beautiful girls in clothes that look like they're going to swish off against the beautiful scenery. At least John Barry's score has an attractive lilt, and the "Love Theme From The Betsy," if that's what it's called, is quite pleasant for this sort of piece, not at all grating like The Great Gatsby's music.

ALL IN ALL dull stuff, except for Olivier. Why did he make The Betsy?, you ask. He no longer has the strength to act in the theater, so he has devoted himself to making money for his children and grandchildren (those paychecks from the National Theatre were piddling sums). Olivier's past accomplishments in drama are legendary. Many people say his true greatness was in the theater, but Olivier has rendered many memorable film performances: Hamlet, Henry, Richard, Othello, Astrov, Strindberg's Captain, and to a lesser, though often equally delightful extent, Heathcliff, Archie Rice in The Entertainer, Graham Weir in Term of Trial and Andrew Wyke in Sleuth. Perhaps, many hope, he will return to the stage someday, if not to undertake a more mature Lear (he did it in '46 at the Old Vic), then perhaps to portray Prospero. There are those of us who would swim the Atlantic for a chance to see that.

The Betsy will probably be rock-bottom for Laurence Olivier; let us hope in the future that he accepts projects that will not mock the accomplishments of a heroic career. Maybe a legion of his fans could from a club to intercept and screen all scripts before they reach him, discarding Harold Robbins and Ira Levin in the process. But then again, in accepting the role of Loren Hardeman, Olivier accepted the challenge of a role unlike any he had done before. At age 70, Laurence Olivier still has enough daring to teach us all a lesson.

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