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Vivien Leigh - Goddesses of the Silver Screen
2311    Dibyendu Banerjee    15/02/2020

Born as Vivian Mary Hartley on 5 November 1913 on the campus of St Paul’s School, Darjeeling, in British India, Vivien Leigh was the only child of an English Broker, Ernest Richard Hartley and his Irish wife, Gertrude Mary Frances. When she was only three, her father was transferred to Bangalore as an officer in the Indian Cavalry and her mother shifted to Ootacamund with her. By that time, Vivien hah already made her first stage appearance for her mother's amateur theatre group. At the age of six, she was sent by her mother to Loreto Covent in Darjeeling, but was removed from the school for travelling with her parent for four years. During that period, she attended different schools in France and Italy and became fluent in French and Italian. After the family returned to Britain in 1931, Vivien was enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, as she expressed her ambition to her parents to become an actress. In fact, she opened her heart about this desire at a very tender age, to the future actress Maureen O’Sullivan, one of her senior friends at Loreto, Darjeeling.

Vivien met 31 year old barrister Herbert Leigh Holman in 1931 and her dream deviated, as she dropped out and got married at the age of 19, to the man, 13 years her senior, despite he disliked acting as a career. They married on 20 December 1932 and she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, on 12 October 1933.

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However, the burning desire in her heart soon brought her on stage and she starred in a play ‘The Bash’, which was not particularly successful, but her performance made an impression on producer Sydney Carroll. During this time, as suggested by her friends, she accepted a small role as a schoolgirl in the film Things Are Looking Up (1935), as an extra. She also engaged an agent, John Gliddon and on his advice, adopted the screen name Vivien Leigh, to start chasing smaller theater and movie roles. In 1935, she was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue, directed by Sydney Carroll and received excellent reviews for her performance. Laurence Olivier, a rising star in those days, saw the show and after he congratulated her on her performance, a friendship developed between them. Two years later they appeared as lovers in Fire over England (1937) and instantly began a blazing off-screen affair, though Laurence was married.

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Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

In 1938, Vivien shared her screen presence with Robert Taylor and her school mate Maureen O’Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford, which was her first film to receive attention in the United States. In the same year, she also appeared in Sidewalks of London, opposite to Charles Laughton and around that time, Oliver had to travel to Hollywood, leaving the dejected Vivien in London, as he was offered the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939). However, the director of the film, William Wyler, offered Leigh the secondary role of Isabella, but she refused, preferring the role of Cathy, which went to Merle Oberon.

In the meantime, American director George Cukor was hunting for the perfect actress to play the lead role of Scarlett O'Hara in David Selznick's production of Gone with the Wind. As David Selznick's brother Myron Selznick was Vivian’s American theatrical agent, she made a request to Myron to help her to be considered for the role. In the ensuing screen test Vivian won the heart of all and even George Cukor praised her incredible wildness. The search for Scarlett, which led to the interview of about 1,4oo women ended, as Vivian secured the role of Scarlett O’Hara and the rest is history. Gone with the Wind (1939) smashed box office records, garnered 13 Academy Award nominations with eight wins, which included one for Leigh as best actress. She also won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Until this day, the film remains one of the most iconic pictures in the history of cinema.

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Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina
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With Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind

However, the filming of Gone with the Wind proved to be a difficult task for Vivien, as sometimes she was required to work seven days a week, often late into the night. In addition to that, she had a strained relationship with Leslie Howard, with whom she was required to play several emotional scenes, which added to her distress. Above all she was badly missing Oliver, who was working in New York City. During the filming, she always had two great concerns in her mind, to give the best efforts to enact an extremely difficult role and at the same time, the depression of being separated from Olivier. Finally, having secured divorces from their respective spouses, they married on 31 August 1940, in a ceremony attended only by their hosts, Ronald and Benita Colman and the witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin. Subsequently, Vivien and Laurence shared the scene only in two more films, 3 Weeks of Madness (1940) and Lady Hamilton, a Divine Lady (1941).

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Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina

Vivien was hopeful to enact opposite to Oliver in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. But, after her screen test, David Selznick thought, she did not seem right as to the sincerity or age or innocence and his view was supported by Hitchcock and Leigh's mentor, George Cukor. Selznick also observed that Vivien had shown no interest for the role, until Olivier had been confirmed as the lead actor. As a result, Joan Fontaine bagged the role of Rebecca. She was also denied to join Olivier in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1940) and in Waterloo Bridge (1940), Robert Taylor replaced Olivier to share the screen with Vivien.

The couple returned to England in March 1943, when Vivien reportedly turned down a studio contract worth $5,000 a week and toured through North Africa, as part of a revue for the armed forces stationed in the region and performed for the troops, before falling ill with a persistent cough and fevers. Tragedy struck in 1944 when she complained about her respiratory problem and was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis in her left lung. As a result, she had to spend several weeks in hospital before appearing to have recovered. In 1945, while filming Caesar and Cleopatra, she became aware of her pregnancy and had a miscarriage with her falling to the floor, sobbing in hysterical fits, which led her to a deep depression. That was the first episode of her many major bipolar disorder breakdowns, several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown. In the midst of her crises, Vivien used to become violent and shouted at people, even to people close to her. Sometimes she wandered alone along the streets and even slept with other men on impulse. However, after the end of the episodes, she could remember nothing about it, which made her embarrassed and remorseful about her behavior. Though she resumed acting with the approval of her attending physician, Anna Karenina (1948) proved to be not a great commercial success.

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Vivien as Cleopatra

However, the scenario changed in 1949, when Vivien Leigh bagged the role of Blanche Du Bois in the West End stage production of Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, which contained a rape scene and references to promiscuity and homosexuality. Though it was destined to be controversial, Vivien accepted the challenge, as she believed strongly in the importance of the work. After a successful run of 326 performances, which continued for around nine months, Vivien was cast in the same demanding role in Hollywood film adaptation of Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), opposite to Marlon Brando. Her portrayal of Du Bois, a character struggling to hide a shattered psyche behind a facade of gentility, perhaps resembled her own real-life struggle with mental illness and her performance, perhaps surpassed her massive success in Gone with the Wind.

She was showered with glowing reviews for her performance in the film and earned her second Academy Award for Best Actress. She was also awarded a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She was additionally rewarded by Tennessee Williams, as he commented that Vivien Leigh brought everything in the role that he intended and much more that he had never dreamed of.

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With Marlon Brando on A Street Car Named Desire

In 1951, Leigh and Laurence Olivier successfully performed in two simultaneous London stage productions of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. However, in spite of everything, the bipolar disorder continued to disturb her and after another miscarriage, she had another bout of nervous breakdown in 1953, while she was filming Elephant Walk with Peter Finch in Ceylon and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. It also earned her a bad name for being a difficult person to work with. In addition to that her relationship with Olivier became more and more tumultuous, as she confessed that she was in love with Finch since 1948 and had been having an affair with him. However, in 1958, Vivien Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who was aware of her medical condition and assured Olivier that he would care for her. Nevertheless, the troubled marriage of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver ended in divorce in 1960.

Jack Merivale proved to be a stabilizing influence for Vivien, who joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, which continued from July 1961 to May 1962. She was awarded the Etoile de cristal, the French equivalent to the Academy Award, for her last screen appearance in a leading role in the Oscar-winning film Ship of Fools (1965).

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Unfortunately, her tuberculosis recurred in May 1967, when she was rehearsing for staging ‘A Delicate Balance’. After a few several weeks of complete rest, when she seemed to be recovering, her body was discovered by Jack Merivale on the floor of her bedroom, in the wee hours of 7 July 1967. Probably, she collapsed while she was trying to go to the bathroom. In her honour and to mark the sad and premature end to a tumultuous and triumphant career, the lights of every theatre in central London blacked out their lights for a full hour on the next day. Her funeral was attended by the luminaries of British stage and screen and according to her will, Vivien Leigh was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her summer home, Tickerage Mill, in East Sussex, England.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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