17 February 2014

Vivien Leigh

Extraordinarily beautiful British actress Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) won two Academy Awards for playing ‘Southern belles’: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). On stage she starred – often with her husband, Laurence Olivier - in parts that ranged from the heroines of Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw comedies to Shakespearean characters like Ophelia, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 321. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1950.

Fire Over England

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, to Ernest Hartley, a British Officer in the Indian Cavalry, and Gertrude Robinson Yackje. In 1917, her father was relocated to Bangalore, while Vivian and her mother stayed in Ootacamund.

At age six, Vivian was sent to a convent school in England. In addition to taking the usual classes, Vivian studied violin, piano, cello, and ballet, and participated in school plays. A friend there was the future actress Maureen O'Sullivan, to whom she expressed her desire to become 'a great actress'.

In 1931 her father helped her enrol at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. She met Herbert Leigh Holman, known as Leigh, a barrister thirteen years her senior. Despite his disapproval of ‘theatrical people’, they were married in 1932, and upon their marriage she terminated her studies at RADA.

In 1933, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, but felt stifled by her domestic life. Her friends suggested her for a small part in Things Are Looking Up (Albert de Courville, 1935), which marked her film debut.

She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who recommended her to film director and producer Alexander Korda, but he rejected her as lacking potential. Cast in the play The Mask of Virtue in 1935, Vivien Leigh received excellent reviews followed by interviews and newspaper articles. Korda, who attended her opening-night performance, admitted his error and signed her to a film contract.

Laurence Olivier saw Leigh in The Mask of Virtue, and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. While playing lovers in the film Fire Over England (William K. Howard, 1937), Olivier and Leigh developed a strong attraction, and after filming was completed, they began an affair. Olivier was at that time married to the actress Jill Esmond.

Vivien Leigh
British postcard in the Picturegoer series, London, no. 1124b. Photo: Paramount.

Vivien Leigh
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 747. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vivien Leigh
Belgian postcard by Les Editions d'Art L.A.B., Bruxelles (Brussels), no. 1040. Photo: MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Publicity still for Gone With The Wind (1939). This postcard was given to us by Gill4kleuren.

Fire Over Atlanta

Vivien Leigh played Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production. They began living together, as their respective spouses had each refused to divorce. Leigh appeared with Conrad Veidt in the spy thriller Dark Journey (Victor Saville, 1937), and with Robert Taylor and Maureen O'Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford (Jack Conway, 1938). During production of the latter she developed a reputation for being difficult and unreasonable, and Korda instructed her agent to warn her.

Her next role was in St. Martin's Lane/Sidewalks of London (Tim Whelan, 1938) with Charles Laughton and Rex Harrison. Laurence Olivier travelled to Hollywood to play Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's production of Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939), leaving Vivien Leigh in London. She was offered the secondary role of Isabella, but she refused it, saying she would only play Cathy, a role already assigned to Merle Oberon.

Leigh's American agent was the London representative of the Myron Selznick Agency, and in 1938, she asked that her name be placed in consideration for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's (Myron’s brother) production of Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) an epic adaptation of the bestseller by Margaret Mitchell. David O. Selznick watched her films, and from that time she became a serious contender for the part. Leigh travelled to Los Angeles, ostensibly to be with Olivier.

When Myron Selznick, who also represented Olivier, met Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities his brother was searching for. Myron took Leigh and Olivier to the set where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed, and introduced Leigh. The following day, Leigh read a scene for Selznick, who organised a screen test and wrote to his wife, "She's the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone's ear but your own: it's narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh".

Filming proved difficult for Leigh; director George Cukor was dismissed and replaced by Victor Fleming, with whom Leigh frequently quarrelled. Her role opposite Clark Gable brought Leigh immediate attention and fame. Among the ten Academy Awards won by Gone with the Wind was a Best Actress award for Leigh, who also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for Gone with the Wind (1939).

Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for Gone with the Wind (1939) with Clark Gable.

Adulterous Nature

In 1940, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married. Leigh hoped to star with her husband and made a screen-test for Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). Selznick noted that she didn't seem right as to sincerity or age or innocence, and he subsequently cast Joan Fontaine. He also refused to allow her to join Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940), and Greer Garson took the part Leigh had envisioned for herself.

Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn Leroy, 1940) was to have starred Olivier and Leigh; however, Selznick replaced Olivier with Robert Taylor, then at the peak of his success as one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's most popular male stars. Leigh's top billing reflected her status in Hollywood, and the film proved to be popular with audiences and critics.

She and Olivier mounted a stage production of Romeo and Juliet for Broadway. The New York press publicized the adulterous nature that had marked the beginning of Olivier and Leigh's relationship, and questioned their ethics in not returning to England to help with the war effort; and the critics were hostile in their assessment of the production. The couple had invested almost their entire savings into the project, and its failure was a financial disaster for them.

Next they filmed That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. The film was popular in the United States and an outstanding success in the Soviet Union. The Oliviers returned to England, and Leigh toured through North Africa in 1943, performing for troops before falling ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung. But after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured.

When she suffered a miscarriage, she fell into a deep depression. This was the first of many major breakdowns related to bipolar disorder. She was well enough to resume acting in 1946, in a successful London production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, but her films of this period, Caesar and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945) and Anna Karenina (Julien Duvivier, 1948), were not great successes.

In 1947 Olivier was knighted, and Vivien Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. She became Lady Olivier, and after their divorce, per the style granted the divorced wife of a knight, she became, socially, Vivien, Lady Olivier.

Vivien Leigh
British postcard by Real Photograph, no. 261.

Vivien Leigh
Russian postcard by Izdanije Byuro Propogandy Sovietskogo Kinoiskusstva, no. 8.(This postcard was printed in an edition of 100.000 cards. The price was 75 kop.).

Vivien Leigh
Dutch postcard, no. AX 283. (Foto-archief Film en Toneel) Photo: Warner Bros.

Romantic, Emotionally Fragile, and Tragic

Vivien Leigh played the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Blanche, Leigh was romantic, emotionally fragile, and tragic. After a run of 326 performances, she was also engaged for the film version opposite Marlon Brando. The film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1952) had glowing reviews, and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a BAFTA Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

In 1953, Leigh travelled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown, and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned her to their home in England, where between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him that she had been having an affair with Finch. She gradually recovered over a period of several months.

Noël Coward was enjoying success with the play South Sea Bubble, with Leigh in the lead role, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months.

In 1960, she and Olivier divorced, and Olivier married the actress Joan Plowright. Vivien’s new partner Jack Merivale proved to be a stabilizing influence for her. Though she was still beset by bouts of depression, she continued to work in the theatre and in 1963 won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Tovarich.

She also appeared in the films The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961, José Quintero) opposite Warren Beatty, and in the all-star Ship of Fools (1965, Stanley Kramer).

After many long years of battling manic depression and several outbreaks of tuberculosis, Vivien Leigh's body gave out. She died in London in 1967.

Vivien Leigh screentests for Gone with the Wind. Source: VivienLeighCom (YouTube).

Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor dance the farewell waltz in Waterloo Bridge (1940). Source: TheEagle54 (YouTube).

Trailer of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Source: British Film Institute (YouTube).

Sources: Brian McFarlane (Encyclopedia of British Film), Leigh Milla (Vivien-Leigh.com), Robert Ortiz (Find A Grave), Wikipedia, and IMDb.


Eddy said...

hello Bob,
She was a great actress. I'm a fan of old classic movies.
My favourite with Vivien is "A Steetcar named Desire".

Anonymous said...


Bunched Undies said...

I've often wondered if today's medications would have helped her. A great post about a troubled soul.