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Mary Astor and Her Pink Diary (1906) Ingrid Bergman and Her Lovers
The Torrid Life and Love of Vivien Leigh - Stories Behind The Screen
444    Dibyendu Banerjee    15/04/2022

Years before Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier won Oscar, they first met after one of the stage performances of Leigh in The Mask of Virtue in London in 1936, when Olivier stopped by after the show to congratulate the rising star on her performance. At that time, Oliver was 28 and was married to actress Jill Esmond and Vivien, inher early 20s, was married to Herbert Leigh Holman, a barrister 13 years her senior and had his daughter.

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The pair took an immediate liking to one another and later, after the initial meeting, Vivien once told one of her friends that she is going to marry the man. While Vivien was completely taken with Olivier’s magnetic charm, Olivier was drawn to her in a way he was with no other woman. Herbert Leigh Holman’s disapproval of Vivien’s passion fortheatre was just one of the reasons for their unhappy conjugal life. On the other side of the coin, the relationship between Olivier and his wife was not very intimate, as Esmond preferred women. However, in spite of that, Esmond conceived around the same time Olivier's affair with Leigh began in early 1936.

the torrid life

However, their mutual attraction soon became a full blown passionate affair while appearing as love interests in the British film, Fire over England (1937). Since then the pair began to spend time together on and off the set, even travelled to Denmark to perform Hamlet together with Leigh playing the role of Ophelia.

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Although Olivier had cheated his wife before, this time things were different, as he found Vivien fatefully irresistible. During this period, while filming A Yank in Oxford (1938), Vivien suffered frequent mood swings and gained disrepute as unreasonable and difficult to work with. Probably due to that, when Olivier was cast as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), Leigh was offered the role of Isabella, instead of her campaign for the role Cathy, which she bluntly turned down. However, despite being interviewed with Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Crawford, she bagged the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), which won an unprecedented 10 Oscars, including the Best Actress gong for Leigh. However, for filming, she has to work for 16 hours a day, six days a week, under extreme stress and used to take an overdose of sleeping pills during the production. Later studies have shown that lack of sleep is a common side effect of depression and stress plays a major role in triggering manic bipolar phases.

the torrid life
With Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, 1939

The next year was filled with good news for the pair, as they received the news that their request for divorce had been granted from their spouses in England. Till then, although Vivien and Olivier lived together for around three years, they had been forced to keep their relationship out of the public eye, as they were a popular public scandal. Finally, the pair married on 31 August 1940 in Santa Barbara, California, in a quiet civil ceremony, witnessed only by actress Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin, a director on Broadway and in Hollywood and the news was announced in a public press conference on the next day.

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After their marriage, Leigh and Olivier appeared together in 21 Days (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941), as well as a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. However, behind the scenes, things were not so rosy and pleasing for Vivien. Although she was eager to appear opposite Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Joan Fontaine bagged the title role, as she did not seem perfect to the sincerity or age or innocence at the screen test and did not show any interest for the role until Olivier was confirmed as the lead actor. She was also denied to join Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Robert Taylor replaced Olivier to share the screen with her in Waterloo Bridge (1940).

the torrid life

The couple returned to England in March 1943 and toured through North Africa in 1944 to entertain the armed forces stationed in that region. Shortly after that Vivien became sick with persistent coughing fits with fevers and was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis in her left lung. During that time, she had to spend several weeks in a hospital, when Olivier wrote to her constantly to console her, assuring his love for her. Before her release from the hospital, the attending doctors advised her to take a break from acting and take absolute rest for recuperation. But by that time, Vivien became impatient and bored, detached from her world of passion and accepted the prize role of Cleopatra, in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). However, during filming, she   became aware of her pregnancy and things became complicated after she suffered a miscarriage, when she slipped and fell while running across a polished floor for a scene. The resulting trauma led to her first mental breakdown, which would be the first of many bipolar disorder breakdowns to come. The incident sent her into a deep depression and she became so distraught that sometimes she fell into hysterical crying fits, even on the floor.

the torrid life
With Laurence Olivier

That was the first episode of her many major bipolar disorder breakdowns in which her several days of hyperactivity followed by a deep depression resulted in a dramatic breakdown consisting of shivering fits and swear-filled tongue-lashing. During those days of bipolar disorder, she changes into a hypersexual and vulnerable person, prone to paranoia. Sometimes she wandered alone aimlessly along the streets or wandered naked through the gardens at night and sometimes even slept with strangers on impulse, but after the end of the bouts, could remember nothing about it.

In 1948, when the couple went on a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand to perform, Vivien suffered severe insomnia and sometimes had to allow her standby to replace her in the performance. Unfortunately, their conjugal relationship also started to dwindle during the tour, as they often got involved in heated arguments over her mood swings, which were becoming increasingly difficult for Olivier to manage. The most unpleasant argument occurred at backstage in Christchurch, New Zealand, when Leigh refused to go onstage with Olivier, as her shoes were missing. During the heated alternation, Olivier could not take it anymore and slapped Vivien in the face publicly and she slapped him back. However, within minutes of the incident, she appeared on the stage smilingly in borrowed shoes. But later Olivier realized that he had lost his Vivien after that incident in Australia.

the torrid life

Despite her unstable mental condition and erratic behaviour, Vivian Leigh bagged the role of Blanche Du Bois, an aging Southern belle living in a state of incessant panic about her fading beauty in Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, staged in a West End Theatre. Though it contained a rape scene and references to promiscuity and homosexuality, Vivien accepted the challenge, since she was convinced about the potentiality of the role. After a successful run of the show continuing for nine months, she was cast in the same demanding role in the Hollywood film adaptation of the play opposite Marlon Brando. Her own life had been very much like that of Tennessee’s wounded butterfly and to portray a character in the film, struggling to hide a shattered psyche behind a facade of gentility, Vivien undoubtedly drew on her own struggles with sanity and gave her best, which perhaps surpassed her massive success in Gone with the Wind and won another Best Actress Oscar. But the situation went out of her control in 1953, when during the filming of Elephant Walk, in Sri Lanka, she became completely erratic and paranoid on set and complained of suffering from hallucinations. While she was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor and arrangements were made to send Vivien back to Los Angeles. However, while on board the flight back, Vivien became restless and tried to jump out of the plane and back in Hollywood, she reportedly screamed lines from A Streetcar Named Desire. She was sedated and flown back to England, where Olivier took her complete care and admitted her to the exclusive Fairdene-Netherne mental asylum, where she was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. After spending three months at the psychiatric hospital, she was released with prominent burn marks from the electroshock paddles on her temples.

the torrid life
With Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

Even after Vivien Leigh admitted to cheating with Australian actor Peter Finch, in 1953, the couple did not give up on their marriage. However, by 1958 Vivien considered her marriage to be over, as their relationship was worsening rapidly. On one occasion, when she beat Olivier across the face with a wet towel, he lost control and tossed her across the bedroom and the next day she appeared in public wearing a black eye patch. Tragically, she had another miscarriage in 1956, sending her into another period of depression. By that time she began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who was aware of her medical condition and promised to take her care. Nevertheless, during that time, Olivier also having an affair with English actress Joan Plowright, who was 22 years younger than him. Ultimately, after 20 years of marriage, Vivien and Olivier divorced on 6 January 1961 and while 53-year-old Olivier married 31-year-old actress, Joan Plowright on 17 March 1961, Leigh moved in with the younger actor Jack Merivale and continued to act on stage and won a Tony Award in 1963.

the torrid life

Due to a recurrence of tuberculosis, she was bedridden for 4 weeks in 1967. However, when she seemed to be recovering, her body was discovered in the wee hours of 7 July 1967 by Jack Merivale on her bedroom floor. It seemed that, probably, she was suffocated as her lungs were filled with fluid and collapsed while she was trying to go to the bathroom. To pay homage to the sad and premature end to her tumultuous and triumphant career, the lights of every theatre in central London blacked out their lights for a full hour.

Although Olivier lived another 22 years after Vivien's death, contentedly married to Joan Plowright, two years before he died, a visitor reportedly found him sitting alone, watching Vivien Leigh in an old film on television

the torrid life
Mary Astor and Her Pink Diary (1906) Ingrid Bergman and Her Lovers
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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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