Two of Hollywood’s greatest legends, Laurence Olivier and Ingrid Bergman, never appeared in a film together – they barely even cross paths in each other’s biographies. While they both came from abroad to ignite their Hollywood careers in the late 1930s, and both led stormy and sometimes scandalous personal lives, the only time their careers intersected was in a moment of serendipitous Academy trivia: Exactly 25 years ago, both actors received their last Oscar nominations.
Not that they shared the stage on April 9, 1979 – Bergman, nominated as Best Actress for fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, was too sick to show up. Over the years, however, they’d each picked up three statuettes, and Olivier actually received his third – an honorary Oscar for ”the full body of his work” – that night, with easily the most eloquent head-scratcher of an acceptance speech in Oscar history (more on that in a minute). They both fell short in competition that evening: Olivier, nominated for the ludicrous thriller The Boys From Brazil, lost Best Actor to Jon Voight in Coming Home; Bergman, acknowledged for what would be her final big-screen appearance before she died (on her 67th birthday!) in 1982, was bested by Coming Home’s Jane Fonda.
Together, during the course of half-century careers, they both brought oddball speeches, crazy bloopers, considerable controversy, and sizzling comebacks to the Oscar stage.
Olivier was the more nominated of the two. Tapped 10 times as an actor – more than any other except Jack Nicholson – the British stage veteran started his film career at a gallop. A two-time Best Actor nominee by the age of 33 for 1939’s Wuthering Heights and 1940’s Rebecca, Olivier marched to a special Oscar in 1947 for ”his outstanding achievement” in Henry V and, two years later, to a Best Actor Oscar for the title role in Hamlet (he was also nominated for directing the film). Hollywood studios were furious that so many British films – Olivier’s as well as others, like 1946’s Great Expectations and 1948’s The Red Shoes – were threatening or outright usurping American productions for the top prizes, which helped them decide to stop donating money to the awards show after 1948. Only four years later did network money for broadcast rights start bringing back the cash.
Barring an appearance as a cohost of the ceremony in 1959, Olivier was a no-show at the Oscars from 1940 – when his mistress and future wife (and future ex-wife) Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for Gone With the Wind – until he received his honorary Oscar in 1979. In his 1982 autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, he called the selections of award-giving bodies ”miasmicly mysterious,” and he was AWOL at the Academy Awards when he lost for Richard III, The Entertainer, Othello, Sleuth, and Marathon Man.
He made up for every absence with his zany honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 1979. Sporting his Zeus beard from the Clash of the Titans shoot, the 71-year-old lord of the realm first thanked Cary Grant, a ”dear old friend for many a year,” who’d introduced him (they’d met perhaps twice), and cribbed a salutation from Othello. Then he really took off: The ”mere fact” of the award, he said, ”must be seen as a beautiful star in that firmament which shines upon me at this moment, dazzling me a little, but filling me with the warmth of the extraordinary elation, the euphoria that happens to so many of us at the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow.”