I title this post that, because, after my post on Gone with the Wind, I wanted to write something on Vivien Leigh that portrayed her as more than Scarlett O'Hara. To me, Vivien Leigh was the epitome of strength and one of the best actresses Hollywood has ever known.
She was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in Darjeerling, India to Ernest and Gertrude Hartley. Ernest Hartley was a British officer in the Indian Calvary who had moved to India with his bride, Gertrude, in 1912. Vivian's mother, Gertrude, instilled in her daughter a firm love for the arts and at the age of three Vivian performed before her mother's amateur theater group her rendition of Little Bo Peep. Little did they know all that was to come for Vivian Hartley.
Vivian at three years of age.
Vivian with her mother, Gertrude.
At the age of six, Vivian was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton. She was the youngest girl in the school, but had befriended another soon-to-be-famous girl, Margaret O'Sullivan, and had confided in her that she "desired to become a great actress." Despite her age, however, Vivian's natural charisma drew people to her and she was able to adjust to the convent life and participated in school plays. When her parents returned to England in 1927, Vivian was eager to start a life of her own and to become an actress. But her parents brought her with them abroad in Europe and Vivian attended various finishing schools in Italy, France, and Germany until she was of the age of seventeen. It was then that she decided that she wanted to become the actress she had always dreamed of becoming and convinced her parents to enroll her in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. While at the Academy, Vivian met a 31-year-old lawyer named Leigh Holman. Vivian was smitten and at the age of nineteen, she married him. Nine months later she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Suzanne.
Vivian and Leigh Holman on their wedding day.
Vivian and her daughter Suzanne.
But Vivian was restless. Holman had felt that she would put aside acting to become a full time mother, but that was not the case. She returned to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to take classes and acted as her own agent for a long while. But it was not satisfactory to act as her own agent, and Vivian soon snagged one of her own, a once-actor and journalist John Gliddon. Gliddon found Vivian charming, with the exception of her name, which he found unflattering. Vivian Holman was not the name of the star and together they agreed upon Vivian Leigh, which would later be spelled "Vivien" to clear up misconceptions on programs for those who might think her to be a man. Gliddon was determined to make Vivien a star.
Gliddon obtained for Leigh parts in Gentleman's Agreement (1935), Look Up and Laugh (1935), and the Village Squire (1935), all very forgettable films. They decided to focus on the theater, which had attracted Leigh from youth, and to prove Leigh's worth as an actress, which had yet to be done. Leigh was only praised for her exquisite beauty until she starred in the play The Mask of Virtue, in which she won rave reviews from the critics. An added bonus of the play was that a young, rising actor was in the audience and had been captivated by her performance. That actor was Laurence Olivier. Leigh had seen Olivier in several plays and found herself strongly drawn to the actor. They formed a close friendship, which developed into an affair when they starred opposite one another in 1937's Fire Over England. But Leigh was still married to Leigh Holman and Olivier was also married, to Jill Esmond, and had a son, Tarquin. Their feelings for one another were such that they could not bear separation, and eventually formally separated from their spouses.
A series of stills of Leigh and Olivier in Fire Over England (1937).
Olivier was handsome, charming, and shared Vivien's passion for acting. The theater was his life and Leigh resolved upon herself to please him as much as possible, whether in the theater or in their personal lives. They performed Hamlet at the Old Vic Theater, in which Olivier recounted an event in which Leigh suffered a major mood swing. Cited from Wikipedia, "Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him, before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap, and by the following day, she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event." Leigh had suffered mood swings before, but they seemed to progressively getting worse.
In 1938 Leigh accepted the role of Elsa Craddock in A Yank at Oxford. Although the film was not particularly grand on scale, it starred one of MGM's hottest leading men of the time, Robert Taylor, as well as the legend Lionel Barrymore. Another star in the film was Leigh's old schoolmate Margaret O'Sullivan, who by this time had been married to John Farrow. In Alexander Walker's biography, it states that Leigh felt judged by O'Sullivan for her adulterous relationship with Olivier, but they worked together without acrimony. But on the set of A Yank at Oxford, there were complaints of bad behavior from the cast and crew. Following a disagreement over the payment of Leigh's shoes, MGM told Gliddon frankly that if Leigh did not improve her behavior, they would drop her from the picture. Gliddon told Leigh this and recounted that she had been in a rage over the situation before shooing him from her in a great state of anger. It would become a routine for Leigh, to call people after she had had an outburst involving them to apologize, but this was one of the first times she had done so. According to Alexander Walker's biography she had called Gliddon to apologize and Gliddon attempted to pass it off as nerves and frustration, but Leigh responded, "No, John. I'm liable to have an outburst like this now and then. It frightens me sometimes - and I'm always deeply sorry for it, as I am now. What I really need is a clause in my contract giving me two or three days off when I'm filming if I feel one of these 'states' coming on me. Please do forgive me, John."
A Yank at Oxford turned out to be a reasonable hit and brought her somewhat in the eyes of the American public, although most turned out only to see Robert Taylor. That would soon change.
A series of stills from A Yank at Oxford (1938) with Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Margaret O'Sullivan.
Also that year Leigh starred with Charles Laughton in Sidewalks of London, also alongside Rex Harrison, who had been her costar in 1937's Storm in a Teacup. Leigh and Laughton did not get along, but Laughton had a notorious history of getting along with few of his costars. But people on the set classified Leigh as "unreasonable" to Laughton. Also, she was fairly difficult on the set as well with just about everyone. Larry Adler, who had a small part in the film, said of her, "She didn't like Charles and he didn't like her. But he was much more professional. One weekend there were a few close-ups of Vivien to be done outside a theater and Charles, who invariably went down to the country with Elsa [Lanchester] on weekends, stayed up in town to 'feed' Vivien lines from behind the camera. I doubt if she'd have done as much for him. Olivier would stop up on the set and they'd disappear into her dressing-room and it was quite a business to get her back to work."
Leigh and Laughton in Sidewalks of London (1938).
Laurence Olivier had been accepted to star as Heathcliff in an upcoming film version of the classic Emily Bronte novel Wuthering Heights. Leigh wanted desperately to play Cathy to his Heathcliff, but she was instead offered by director William Wyler the smaller role of Isabella. She refused flat out, to which Wyler responded "For a an actress just starting out, you're not going to get a role better than Isabella." However, Leigh had already set her sights on Scarlett O'Hara and went about to get the part.
She pitched herself against many of the best actresses in Hollywood, and she, as the little-known English actress, managed somehow to get the part. The columnist Hedda Hopper wrote an article that proposed to boycott the film due to the English girl's casting in the role of an "American girl." But obviously, nobody heeded Hopper's request.
Leigh began work on Gone with the Wind in January and finished in July. The schedule was a rigorous one and as described in my last entry, Vivien Leigh paid a hefty price in both her psychological and physical states. At the end of filming, she was again united with Laurence Olivier, who had been sent by David O. Selznick to New York to perform on Broadway in No Time for Comedy. Leigh then collected her Academy Award for Best Actress, which earned Olivier's intense jealousy, as he had been deprived of his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Heathcliff by Robert Donat's stunning portrayal of Chips in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
A series of stills of Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
By 1940, Leigh and Olivier made a huge advancement in their personal lives. Their spouses had finally consented to give them divorces and they were permitted to marry. They had Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin as witnesses and honeymooned on Ronald Colman's yacht. After news of their wedding leaked out to the public, Leigh and Olivier attended a press conference to answer the public's questions.
Leigh and Olivier at the press conference following their wedding.
Leigh had wanted terribly to star alongside Olivier in Pride and Prejudice, wanting the part of Elizabeth, while she also wanted to star alongside him in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Greer Garson had already been signed to play Elizabeth and the part of the second Mrs. de Winter was entirely wrong for Leigh. She was far too strong of an actress to play the part of the timid second Mrs. de Winter and therefore was breezed over in favor of Joan Fontaine. Rebecca had been a David O. Selznick film, and Leigh always held it against him that he did not choose her for that film, and did her best to thwart her contract to him over the next few years. Unable to star in one of Olivier's films, Leigh resolved to have him traded to one of hers. The film was Waterloo Bridge, directed by Mervyn LeRoy. But MGM refused to trade Olivier's assignments and Robert Taylor was instead brought in to star in Waterloo Bridge.
In two short years since Taylor and Leigh's pairing in A Yank at Oxford, Leigh had gone from an obscure actress to an international star. People all over the globe wanted to see another film with "Scarlett O'Hara" in it and Waterloo Bridge provided them with that opportunity. Leigh and Taylor got equal billing in this film and despite Leigh's own doubts about Taylor's ability to act the part of Roy Cronin, the sensitive soldier who falls in love with Leigh's ballerina, effectively, she was surprised at Taylor's abilities. He was able to match her unique femininity without being too overpowering, or without being cut down to size by her subtle acting techniques. They worked well together and got along on the set.
A series of stills from 1940's Waterloo Bridge.
After their separate films, Olivier and Leigh planned their own production of Romeo and Juliet, which was a monumental failure. But they starred together in their one and only film together as a married couple, 1941's That Hamilton Woman. They then returned to England to help with the war effort and bought a house together. Leigh grudgingly agreed to do war tours, dressing up in her Scarlett O'Hara costumes to entertain the troops, while Olivier trained RAF pilots. At the end of the war Leigh and Olivier returned to what they did best, acting, and embarked on separate projects. Leigh began to film Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945 with Claude Rains, when, with joy, she discovered that she was pregnant. Leigh had always wanted to have Olivier's child and it was her dream when her wish finally came true. But while filming a scene on the film, she slipped and fell, suffering a miscarriage. It was at that point that Leigh's perceptible, but not debilitating, mood swings took a massive turn. She became uncontrollable and would sometimes turn on Olivier, angrily cursing him for everything. Olivier and Leigh had monumental arguments, Olivier once having to calm Leigh by slapping her on the face, to which she responded by slapping him on the face and cursing him. She went in for electric shock therapy, which, although she and Olivier hoped would help her condition, did just the opposite and increased her bipolar symptoms.
In 1948 Olivier and Leigh went on an Australian tour. Their marriage had been suffering greatly since Leigh had miscarried and while in Australia, she drifted still further from Olivier. Olivier later wrote wrote of the trip, "I knew then that Vivien was lost to me." Leigh began an affair with a promising young actor in Olivier's troop, Peter Finch. The affair crushed Olivier and their marriage plummeted into an unrelenting downward spiral. When they returned to England, Leigh began filming Anna Karenina (1948) while Olivier buried himself in his directed film version of Hamlet. Following Anna Karenina, Leigh convinced Olivier to direct her in Tennessee Williams' new play A Streetcar Named Desire, which had opened on Broadway with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in the lead roles with a resounding success. Leigh wanted the West End production to be a success and did everything she could to make her performance of Blanche DuBois believable, unfortunately a little too believable. Blanche DuBois suffered from many of the same psychiatric illnesses that Leigh suffered from and as she went out on the stage to perform the shattering final breakdown of Blanche, Leigh became more involved with the character, to the point where she was unable to differentiate Vivien Leigh from Blanche DuBois.
Elia Kazan had been offered by Warner Brothers to make the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, although Warner Bros. advised Kazan to find "star power," as Marlon Brando had not yet become a star in the box office terms. Jessica Tandy was dropped from the film version and replaced with Vivien Leigh, who would ensure the film's success. But Leigh was still suffering from her mental illness and Olivier accompanied her, taking the role in 1951's Carrie to keep an eye on her. Leigh managed to make her way through filming without too many problems, although she felt completely isolated from the rest of the cast. The entire cast of the film had performed together in the Broadway production and Leigh was a stranger to everyone on the set. Although she and Marlon Brando initially despised each other, they developed a cool rapport, following their same bawdy senses of humor. But Leigh did not get along with Kazan, who still found her incomparable with the brilliance of Jessica Tandy in the stage version. However, Leigh's casting did prove to be the film's insurance to success. After A Streetcar Named Desire was released, Marlon Brando became a full fledged star and it pumped new life into Leigh's career.
Brando and Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
In 1953 Leigh traveled to Ceylon to begin filming Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. But her continuously deteriorating mental condition forced her to return to England where she stayed at her home with Olivier, Notley Abbey, to rest. She was replaced with Elizabeth Taylor. Leigh recovered to perform with Olivier in several stage productions and even discovered she was pregnant once more. She planned to name the child Katharine, but was again shattered to learn that she had miscarried. She launched into another bout with depression and, considering her marriage with Olivier to be over, began an affair with the actor Jack Marivale. Olivier, meanwhile, had begun his own affair with the actress Joan Plowright and asked Leigh for a divorce. Leigh was devastated and did not believe that the love of her life was asking her for a divorce, but she eventually consented and signed the divorce papers. She moved from Notley Abbey into a home she called Tickerage Mill with Jack Marivale while she watched helplessly as Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier were married. During this time Leigh reached out to her daughter, Suzanne, whom she had virtually neglected throughout much of Suzanne's upbringing. Leigh was present with Leigh Holman at the wedding of her daughter and cared for her grandchildren diligently. Leigh starred in several more plays and in Stanley Kramer's 1965 masterpiece Ship of Fools, in which she played a bitter divorced woman.
Leigh in Ship of Fools (1965).
By 1967, Leigh's health was failing her, although not as much as one might think. For a lifelong smoker and drinker, Leigh was still getting around comfortably. She was planning to do another play, but she had been crippled by chronic bad health throughout her life, mentally as well as physically. She had been plagued by tuberculosis many times, and in 1967 she had come down with another bout of the illness. But when she had learned that Laurence Olivier was being treated for cancer, her concerns for him pushed aside all concerns for herself, and she neglected to care for herself, insisted that she felt well. On July 7th, she had spent the day arranging flowers and saw off her companion Jack Marivale to the theater. Marivale said he called her once from his dressing room, and that was the last time he had ever spoke to her. He had asked her if she had her cat with her, to which she responded that she did. When Marivale returned, he saw her on the floor. She had apparently suffocated when fluid had entered her lungs and had died. Marivale then called Olivier who discharged himself from the hospital where he was being treated for cancer immediately. Marivale left Olivier alone with the body, to which Olivier confessed in his memoirs, "I stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us."
Leigh was cremated and her ashes scattered on the pond at her home of Tickerage Mill.
In my opinion, Leigh should not be remembered simply as the actress who starred as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. She was much more than that. She was a powerhouse of energy that drove the forces of many films. Of course her performance in Gone with the Wind was unforgettable, as with her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, but I find her so much more than an actress. Growing up I looked to her as my idol. I often said, "That's who I want to be like." And honestly, I can say that in many ways I do still want to be like her. She was a strong figure who knew what she wanted and how to get it. And she was a damned good actress as well.