Known for her histrionic virtuosity, ravishing beauty, innate theatrical sense, ludic yet effervescent personality with her characteristic illness-derived mood swings, irreverent sense of humor, ardent ambition, leonine perseverance and flamboyant performances both on stage and screen, two-time Academy Award-winning actress Vivien Leigh is one of the most revered female movie stars of all time. Born Vivien Mary Hartley on November 5th, 1913 in Darjeeling, British India, the British actress received convent education in England and throughout Europe before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1932, inspired by her former schoolmate and MGM actress Maureen O Sullivan, who at that time portrayed Jane in the first film of the ”Tarzan” series. That same year, Vivien married Herbert Leigh Holman and adopted ”Leigh” as her professional name.
After a few minor roles in British films, she achieved the movie star status with her role of the attractive yet light-headed ”Cynthia” in the 1937 British historical drama Fire Over England, produced by Sir Alexander Korda and co-starring her future husband, British stage and film actor Sir Laurence Olivier. This outstanding performance captured the attention of the famous film studio executive David O. Selznick, who at that time was also the producer of the epic film that was going to become the most successful film in box-office history (grossing around $3.3 billion when adjusted for inflation), the iconic and all-time classic Gone With The Wind, directed by Victor Fleming (initially, the director was George Cukor, but he was dismissed during the production of the film).
Throughout her fruitful and triumphant acting career spanning 35 years Vivien Leigh has been equally recognized for her on-screen flawless interpretations of complex characters and her on-stage pathos-filled performances that ranged from tragic characters such as Juliet, Lady MacBeth, Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s classic plays to comedy characters in George Bernard Shaw’s and Noel Coward’s plays. Despite her theater background, her conspicuous British accent and the fact that she believed her beauty thwarted her from being taken seriously as an actress, the legendary actress secured her motion picture immortality by portraying, against all odds, two of the most celebrated Southern belles in American literature – Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois, the apotheosis of her career.
Casting for the 1939 film adaptation of the Civil War and Reconstruction-era production of Gone With the Wind created quite a mad rush in Hollywood, especially for the role of Scarlett O'Hara, the headstrong, tempestuous heroine of Margaret Mitchell's novel. Selected from a pool of more than 1.400 actresses, including some of the Hollywood’s most famous stars at that time such as Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh was cast in the role of the free-spirited, hard-headed yet unexpectedly resourceful Georgia belle Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary masterpiece Gone With The Wind. Her inspirational and exceedingly generous interpretation of Scarlett O'Hara garnered many industry accolades and to this day, her name is intimately connected to the epitome of the Southern belle, to the point of becoming synonymous with the eccentric, narcissistic yet resilient and intense character of Scarlett O'Hara.
In Gone With The Wind, Vivien Leigh reached one of the climaxes of her stellar career, giving a larger-than-life, critically-acclaimed and unforgettable screen performance
In Gone With The Wind, Vivien Leigh reached one of the climaxes of her stellar career, giving a larger-than-life, critically-acclaimed and unforgettable screen performance, which won her the prestigious Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role. Although the initial movie poster read ”starring Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland” and ”presenting Vivien Leigh”, the producers changed it when Miss Leigh won the Oscar and credited her as one of the stars of the movie. Her earnings for this part also reflected the fact that she was not yet considered a true Hollywood star (she received only $25,000 for 125 days of work, while Clark Gable was paid $120,000 for only 71 days on the set). Set in the 19th century Civil War and Reconstruction era of the US, this un-cut cinematic masterpiece received ten Oscars out of thirteen nominations.
The 238-minute long film is the longest running film ever and the first Technicolor movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Although Margaret Mitchell criticized the palatial architectural structure with columns and two staircases representing the Tara plantation in the film adaptation of her best-selling novel ( after all, the inspiration for Tara was a two-story wooden house known as Rural Home), she personally approved Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett.
Vivien Leigh portrayed with her trademark panache the strong-willed and opportunistic heroine that is head over heels in love, virtually obsessed with Ashley Wilkes (portrayed by Leslie Howard) and driven by ”her passion for life”, she begins a tumultuous affair with Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), who becomes her third husband. Scarlett remains in the history of both American literature and film the quintessential embodiment of both Old and New South. Two of her famous movie lines - ”After all, tomorrow is another day” and ”As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” are listed on the American Film Institute's top 100 all-time movie quotes in American cinema.
The role of Scarlett was however as challenging and demanding as it was ample and the 25-year old actress who was virtually unknown in Hollywood at that time had all the reasons to be nervous on the set of the most lavish American film ever made up to that point (with a budget of $3.85 million), allegedly smoking four packs of cigarettes a day during filming. The fact that she did not get along with Victor Fleming, the director who replaced her mentor George Cukor and that she often worked seven days a week certainly added up to the pressure and distress. Her two hours and 23 minute-long performance are the longest performance ever to win an Oscar. In order to stay true to the green-eyed character of Scarlett as depicted in the novel, Leigh’s blue eyes were manually corrected in post-production.
In August 1940, Leigh married Olivier (Katharine Hepburn was her maid of honor) and portrayed Myra Lester in her first film after the unprecedented success of Gone With the Wind the 1940 romantic film Waterloo Bridge, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and co-starring Robert Taylor. Taking place in England, it is a tearful story of a passionate relationship that always seem to be shattered by circumstances. Waterloo Bridge remained her personal favorite of all the films she appeared in.
Idiosyncrasies and eccentricities
In 1944 Vivien Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her left lung and in 1945 she had a miscarriage which triggered a major depression followed by a nervous breakdown that lasted for months and which aggravated her mental condition (she had been suffering from bipolar disorder for much of her adult life). Her next famous character, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, was also in mental turmoil.
After many acclaimed stage performances of the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, Vivien Leigh was cast (at the insistence of the Warner Bros. executives) as Blanche DuBois, another Southern Belle in the 1951 film adaptation of the play. Along with Leigh, the 1951 film production of A Streetcar Named Desire featured a star-packed cast including Karl Malden, Kim Hunter and a relative film newcomer, Marlon Brando, who'd portrayed Stanley Kowalski in the long-running Broadway adaptation. Vivien Leigh fully immersed herself in the role of the unstable alcoholic Blanche DuBois who struggles accepting that her beauty is fading. Forced by shady circumstances to take up residence with her sister and brother-in-law (the brutish, yet passionate Kowalski), Blanche and Stanley's personalities clash constantly, eventually leading to a climactic confrontation.
Her rare interpretation of the tragically delusional, alcoholic and emotionally unstable Blanche in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role and a BAFTA award for best British actress. Despite finding the role grueling, she portrayed seamlessly the ”hopeless, feminine frailty ” of the character, which tipped her over ” into madness” (in her own words). Tennessee Williams himself stated that Vivien Leigh’s visionary interpretation of Blanche succeeded in bringing to the original character ”much that he had never dreamed of”.
Vivien Leigh's late career encompasses mostly character roles, distinguished by some kind of idiosyncrasies or eccentricities. The most memorable films she starred in during her final years include the 1961 British film The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, based on another play written by Tennessee Williams and the 1965 drama Ship of Fools, which was also her last film.
In her final film appearance, Vivien Leigh once again portrays an aging, former beauty troubled by inner demons. Ship of Fools was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer and features an impressive cast led by Jose Ferrer, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin and Oskar Werner. The action takes place on an ocean liner voyage from Mexico to Germany in the early 1930s, with overlapping plot lines involving the passengers and their back stories. Leigh's portrayal of Mary Treadwell contains glimpses of both Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois, combining elements of desperation and longing for lost youth and missed opportunities.
A paragon of artistic excellence and exemplary versatility in the captivating world of performing arts as well one of the leading figures in the vast American cinematic culture, Vivien Leigh continues to inspire and influence both emerging and professional actresses as much as she continues to mesmerize movie aficionados from all over the world.
The iconic actress passed away at the age of 53, on July 8th, 1967 in her London apartment, due to respiratory failure associated with tuberculosis. Vivien Leigh was survived by Sir Laurence Olivier (whom she divorced in 1960) and her daughter Suzanne with her first husband.