Good Actors Play a Bad One
Lemony Snicket introduces Count Olaf with the following quote:
“The dreadful villainy of this vile fiend has haunted me since I first met him as a young man. And every night, as I continue to work on the Baudelaire case, I find myself weeping, thinking of his utter wickedness and severe lack of theatrical talent.”
Olaf, the antagonist to the books, is a wretched villain and bad actor. As a villain, he is a perpetual menace to the protagonists, the Baudelaire orphans, and the possible murderer of their parents.
Physically, Count Olaf is described as being tall, thin, unkempt, and dirty. His terrible hygiene creates body odor that comes from his not bathing for days at a time. His skin is pale and his voice is wheezy. There is a tattoo on his ankle and a unibrow over his shiny eyes. The book’s illustrator, Brett Helquist, draws Count Olaf with a receding hairline, an aquiline nose, and a shock of gray hair dramatically bent backward.
While the thirteen books of the series and the six corresponding books (Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, The Beatrice Letters, and the four-part prequel, All the Wrong Questions) give more depth to the character, this article will limit the discussion to how he has been portrayed in the NETFLIX television series Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which covers the first four books of the series) and the 2004 film of the same name (which covers only the first three and strays from the books).
Count Olaf’s objective is to steal the Baudelaire’s inherited fortune. For the most part, this is in keeping with his dastardly character – dastardly, a word which here means “wicked and cruel”. His character as it is portrayed in the stories is over the top in its cruelty and comedic potential.
To do justice to this role, the actor playing him must be willing to go over the top. He has to be willing to take a large slice of ham and resurrect the pig. At the same time, the character has to be legitimately evil. He has to dismiss any kind of sympathetic behavior which would endear him to the audience. This monster must not only threaten to kill children for his own greedy ends, but also entertain us with colossally bad acting. We can’t help but laugh at his attempts.
To date, his character has only been played by two actors – Neil Patrick Harris and Jim Carrey – in the television show and the film, respectively.
How well did each actor hit his mark?
Jim Carrey is famous for his outrageous larger than life performances, while Carrey’s career began back in 1980, many can agree he hit his stride in 1990 with the comedy skit show In Living Color.
As a comedic actor, Carrey has used his talent for making rubber-faced expressions, incredible improv, cartoonish impressions, and contortionist physical humor to amuse audiences for decades. It’s been his trademark for roles ranging from Ace Ventura in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Bruce Nolan in Bruce Almighty.
When playing Count Olaf, Carrey had a lot of latitude for improvisation, which he used ingeniously. Not only did he grasp the outlandish hammy style of a villain turned bad actor, but his performance as Stephano, Uncle Montgomery Montgomery’s assistant, was dead-on banal and hilarious at the same time. Also his portrayal of Captain Sham, the one-legged fishing captain in Lake Lachrymose, was one part pirate and one part Captain Ahab.
What seemed to make Carrey monstrous and eerily creepy was his voice as Olaf. While Count Olaf in the books had a wheezy voice, Carrey dials his down an octave and for the most part keeps it soft, low, and sinister – a word which here means “threatening or foreshadowing evil or tragic developments”.
Ironically, it is his sense of comedic play which gives fuel to the evil of who Count Olaf is. When he tells the Baudelaire children to keep away from his skylight room within the mansion, he lets his mask slip with a callous laugh to himself. Killing to him is fun and the fire he might have set is just another thing for him to enjoy.
At the same time, because it is Jim Carrey, we see from his first “Hello, hello, hello…” that we are in for some serious comedy mixed with the insanity he’s famous for. He did not disappoint, especially with his antics in improvisational class for the actors in Olaf’s crew. Watch for Carrey’s tyrannosaurus rex impersonation as well as his “man in the electric chair”.
In fitting with the story, the producers initial choice to direct the film was Tim Burton, who added his unique dark artistry and weird gothic flavor to the set and all of the characters. His first choice for Olaf was Johnny Depp. When Burton left the production he was replaced by Brad Silberling, best known for his work on Casper (1995), City of Angels (1998), and Land of the Lost (2009). He cast Carrey after Depp left with Burton. Silberling also decided to keep the dark surrealistic tones of the movie Burton set and left Carrey to experiment with Olaf’s role.
Neil Patrick Harris
Star of stage, screen, and television, Neil Patrick Harris, has been a professional actor since childhood. He is a versatile multitalented actor who can act, sing, and dance – a triple threat. NPH’s best-known role as a child actor was as Dr. Doogie Howser, MD. He later gained fame for his long-standing role in How I Met Your Mother as the womanizing Barney Stinson.
Harris’s talent shines through the television series like a floodlight onto a dark stage. Not only does he do the character justice, but he performs each episodes theme song of Look Away (four versions in keeping with each book).
His interpretation of Olaf is more subdued and creepier than Carrey’s. Where Carrey’s version might have feigned warmth upon meeting the Baudelaires as their legal guardian, Harris’s is only a shade over indifference. The viewer knows almost immediately these children will not have a pleasant stay as Harris looks down upon them and sneers. He also continues heaping his distain upon the children throughout the episodes.
Whereupon Carrey’s version might have been perceived as an incompetent clown with moments of sadistic intelligence, Harris’s Olaf is a calculated villain. We see his Olaf tries to take his role seriously as an actor only to show how far the character falls short of his passion. Harris gives in to his inner childish brat at times with emotional outbursts that could only come from a petulant toddler. He uses this childish derisiveness with the evil immature behavior that comes naturally with an obvious narcissistic personality disorder.
This doesn’t mean he isn’t funny. Harris finds a new dimension to Olaf where he turns the character’s occasional and obvious incompetence into an opportunity for humor. A prime example is when the Baudelaires see through Olaf’s disguise as Captain Sham and it becomes evident that Olaf doesn’t quite know what to do with his pipe in his hands.
Viewers also are given a singular treat to seeing NPH perform in drag outside of his stage performance in Hedwig and the Angry Itch when he goes all out in his impersonation of Shirley T. Sinoit-Pécer (“T. Sinoit-Pécer” is “receptionist” spelled backward). It was both side-splittingly funny and disturbing.
Fans of the television series are fully convinced that Harris’s Olaf is a psychopath who is willing to kill to further his aims. We see the same thing with Carrey’s performance as well, but with Carrey it’s more like watching the Batman’s villain, The Joker, kill with complete abandon and even enjoy it while Harris does it because they’re a problem that needs resolving.
This is all part of the role. The character has to be a monster capable of callously dropping an infant off a roof – callously, a word which here means “in a way that shows an insensitive and cruel disregard for others”.
I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot. I’ve read the canon stories. These characters are quite alive in my head and I’ve seen many actors interpret and perform these parts. I’ve come to categorize the performances into two groups: Book interpretation and Hollywood version. For example, when I look at Basil Rathbone doing Sherlock Holmes and Peter Ustinov doing Poirot, I think “Hollywood version”. They are movie stars playing a part. When I see Jeremy Brett and David Suchet performing the same roles, respectively, I think “book version”. These actors become the character.
Jim Carrey’s over the top performance of Count Olaf is exactly what I would expect to see on the big screen. It is a film and a Hollywood version with the star quality of Merrill Streep, Billy Connelly, and Jude Law. The money and the medium are not meant to increase the quality of the performance; it’s only meant to show the glitter around it.
Is there a bit of Ace Ventura in Carrey’s Olaf? Yes, quite a bit. However, that’s what we’ve come to expect with a Jim Carrey comedic performance. Audiences want to see him break the rules and be a bit insane. When the role calls for his insanity, we get that and more. There are bits of genius in what he does with the character, and we as film goers get what we pay for.
Neil Patrick Harris’s sedate and eerily creepy performance of Count Olaf gels well with how readers would envision the character within the books. He gives Olaf the subtlety a television performance can afford. Harris has the time to give flesh to this character over approximately twenty-six fifty minute episodes whereas Carrey had to leave viewers with his interpretation over only an hour and fifty minute condensed adaptation that spanned three of the books with no sequel planned.
Harris’s role offers fans an opportunity to see more character dimension as the series goes on. As the books and the series continue we see Count Olaf’s personality evolve (or devolve, a word here that means “degenerate into a lower form”). How his performance will continue within the series is only something time will tell – but I think he’s off to a really good start.