To legions of movie fans, Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) will best be remembered as the defiant and beautiful Scarlett O'Hara, heroine of the 1939 movie classic Gone With the Wind.
Leigh had only a brief career on the British stage and screen when she was plucked out of relative obscurity for the female lead in what would become one of the greatest movies ever made. Playing opposite the charismatic Clark Gable, Leigh became an instant celebrity after her role as Scarlett O'Hara, and remained so for the rest of her relatively short, yet sometimes turbulent life.
An International Upbringing
Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in India, in the cool mountain region of Darjeeling in 1913. Her stockbroker father, Ernest Richard, and her mother, Gertrude, spent half the year in England and half in India, which was then under British control. Enrolled in a convent boarding school outside of London at the age of five, Leigh first appeared on stage three years later in A Midsummer's Night's Dream. She recalled after that experience that she couldn't remember when she didn't want to be an actress. The stage would have to wait, however, as she finished her education. She attended a finishing school in Paris, studied languages in Italy, and attended a girls' seminary in Bavaria. When she was 18, her parents sent her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The Early Career
In 1932, Leigh decided to get serious about her stage career. Married that year to a London barrister, Herbert Leigh Holman, she took his middle name, slightly changed the spelling of her first name. She gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, in 1933, and got a part in a British film called Things Are Looking Upin 1934. For Leigh, they were looking up. She landed small parts in several movies and then won her first stage role in 1935 for a production of The Green Sash. Although the play never got to London's famed theater district, her performance caught the attention of Sydney Carroll, a West End producer. She opened later that year in his The Mask of Virtue. The critics were smitten; some said as much by her astounding beauty as her acting ability. However, this role led to her "big break" and she was signed to a five-year film contract.
Although she worked steadily over the next several years, Leigh's career never brought her top status. From 1936 to 1939, Leigh appeared in a number of British stage and screen productions. She was the Queen in Richard II, an Oxford University student drama production directed by John Gielgud, who would become one of England's greatest stage performers. She played Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and Jessica Morton in Bats in the Belfry. In 1937, she was invited by the Danish government to play Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. She also appeared on the London stage in the title role of Serena Blandish.
Leigh was busy on the British silver screen as well. Cast again with Laurence Olivier, she played a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth in Fire Over England, in 1937, followed by Dark Journey and Storm in a Teacup. In 1938, she played opposite American screen idol Robert Taylor in A Yank at Oxford, a film that really only boosted Taylor's career. She also appeared with Charles Laughton that year in St. Martin's Lane, which was released in the United States in 1940 as The Sidewalks of London. This role was a bit of a change for Leigh, as she was cast to play a mean and unscrupulous heroine.
The Scarlett Legend Begins
Leigh came to the United States in 1938, where she visited Olivier on the set of Wuthering Heights. Sir Laurence Olivier (who was knighted in 1947) was regarded as one of England's greatest stage actors, noted especially for his Shakespearean roles. Leigh and Olivier had become attracted to each other during the filming of Fire Over England, and their well-publicized romance became a main topic of gossip, especially since they were both already married.
While Leigh and Olivier were spending time together, waiting for their divorces so they could marry, David O. Selznick was looking for a star. It was January 1939, and he was still without an actress to play the most publicized, sought-after role in movie history-Scarlett O'Hara, the extraordinary southern belle who is the main character in Gone With The Wind.
Even without Scarlett, the movie was already in production. Selznick had cast the other important roles: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, who proves to be more than a match for Scarlett; Leslie Howard as the quiet, gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett believes she loves; Olivia de Havilland as the gentle Melanie Hamilton, whom Wilkes marries; and Hattie McDaniel as the black servant who runs Tara with a blustery but devoted sense of duty. Even though many actresses, including Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball, tested for the part, Selznick still had not found the right person.
As noted in the "Pre-Production" section of the Gone With the Wind Homepage, Selznick's brother Myron, a talent agent, showed up on the set as they were filming the scene of the burning of Atlanta. He told his brother, "I want you to meet Scarlett O'Hara." According to the website, "The shadowy figure stepped forward, green eyes glinting in the half-light. Selznick always maintained that from the moment he first saw Vivien Leigh, the flames of Atlanta playing across her face, he had known she was Scarlett. She was later given a screen test, but it was only a formality. The part was hers-a storybook ending to a legendary search." As noted in the website, Leigh later commented, "There were dozens of girls testing and I did not seriously consider that I might actually play the part."
The filming of Gone With the Wind was officially completed about five months later. According to the "Post-Production" section of the Gone With the Wind Homepage, Leigh had worked almost non-stop for five months and was totally exhausted. However, she would soon reap the benefits of her dedication to the project.
Critics called Leigh's performance flawless and brilliant, and she went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film won several other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and over the years its fame has hardly diminished. From relative obscurity, the name of Vivien Leigh became known worldwide.
Life After Scarlett
In 1940, Leigh and Olivier starred in Romeo and Juliet in New York, but they did not get good reviews. The disappointment was forgotten a few months later when the couple finally wed in August. That December they sailed for wartorn England where Olivier served in the Royal Navy and Leigh worked for the equivalent of the American USO. The couple made the film That Hamilton Woman in 1941. According to the Times, Leigh had "hoped to join the Old Vic Company (a highly respected repertory company) on her return to England…. the director was of the opinion that her new celebrity would make it impossible for her to fit in."
Leigh continued to bask in the adoration of her fans for her memorable portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara, but she received praise for other work as well. In 1945, she played a 16-year-old Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra and then appeared in the London production of The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by her husband.
Soon after the play opened, Leigh's illness forced its closing for a time while she recuperated. According to her biography on a Gone With the Wind website, "Always frail, Leigh saved her limited stamina for her frequent stage appearances. Bouts of physical illness and mental breakdowns also cast a tragic shadow over the brightness of her many achievements.
Leigh once again found success when she portrayed Blanche Du Bois, the female lead in Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire. In the London stage production, she was directed by Olivier. In the film version, she was directed by Elia Kazan, and in 1951, Leigh won her second Academy Award for the role. Also in 1951, Leigh and Olivier appeared at the St. James in London, during the Festival of Britain. According to the Times, "when this theatre was about to be demolished six years later, she led a vigorous if unsuccessful movement to save it, interrupting a debate in the House of Lords in order to protest."
Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, but she continued to work in the theatre. In 1963, she made her Broadway musical debut in Tovarich. She made her last film, Ship of Fools, in 1965, and died on July 8, 1967, in London. According to the Times, "on the night of her death all theaters in the West End extinguished their exterior lights for an hour as a sign of mourning."
As noted by her biography on a Gone With the Wind website, Leigh will be best remembered for her portrayals of Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Du Bois. Her biography states, "Although she was British, she played the part of the Southern belle to perfection…. Those two sterling performances alone would qualify her for immortality, and she won Academy Awards for Best Actress in both of them."
Bridges, Herb, 'Frankly, My Dear …': Gone With the Wind Memorabilia (Motion Pictures), Mercer University Press, 1995.
Bridges, Herb, and Terryl C. Boodman, Gone With the Wind: The Definitive Illustrated History of the Book, the Movie and the Legend, Fireside, 1989.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1990.
Walker, Alexander, Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, Grove Press, 1989.
Times (London), July 10, 1967.
Gone With the Wind Homepage,http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/3070 (April 23, 1998).
"Vivien Leigh, " Sherrie's Gone With the Wind Page,http://www.ladyrulz.tierranet.com/gwtw/vivien.html (April 23, 1998).
Vivien Leigh, (VHS tape) Americans Talk Issues, 1992.
Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond, (VHS tape) Theatre Communications Group, 1991.
Nationality: British. Born: Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, 5 November 1913. Education: Attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton; schools in Europe; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Family: Married 1) Leigh Holman, 1932 (divorced 1940), daughter: Suzanne; 2) the actor Laurence Oliver, 1940 (divorced 1960). Career: 1934—film debut in Things Are Looking Up; 1935—stage debut in The Green Sash; 1935—contract with Alexander Korda, and, in 1938, contract with David O. Selznick; 1940—Broadway debut with Olivier in Romeo and Juliet: later stage roles in Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra (with Olivier), The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire (in London, and in film version), Look after Lulu, and Tovarich; also a season with Olivier at Stratford upon Avon. Awards: Academy Award, for Best Actress, and Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for Gone with the Wind, 1939; Academy Award, for Best Actress, Best Actress, New York Film Critics, Best Actress, Venice Festival, and Best British Actress, British Academy, for A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Died: In London, England, 8 July 1967.
Films as Actress:
Things Are Looking Up (de Courville) (as schoolgirl)
The Village Squire (Denham) (as Rose Venables); Gentleman's Agreement (Pearson) (as Phil Stanley); Look Up and Laugh (Dean) (as Marjorie Belfer)
Fire over England (William K. Howard) (as Cynthia)
Dark Journey (Saville) (as Madeleine Godard); Storm in a Teacup (Saville and Dalrymple) (as Victoria Grow); 21 Days (Twenty-One Days Together; The First and the Last) (Dean) (as Wanda)
A Yank at Oxford (Conway) (as Elsa Craddock); St. Martin's Lane (Sidewalks of London) (Whelan) (as Libby)
Gone with the Wind (Fleming—additional scenes directed by Cukor, Wood, Menzies, and David O. Selznick) (as Scarlett O'Hara)
Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy) (as Myra Lester)
That Hamilton Woman (Lady Hamilton) (Korda) (title role)
Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal) (as Cleopatra)
Anna Karenina (Duvivier) (title role)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan) (as Blanche Dubois)
Elephant Walk (Dieterle) (as Ruth Wiley in Ceylon long shots)
The Deep Blue Sea (Litvak) (as Hester Collyer)
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Quintero) (title role)
Ship of Fools (Kramer) (as Mary Treadwell)
On LEIGH: books—
Barker, Felix, The Oliviers, Philadelphia, 1953.
Dent, Alan, Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet, London, 1969.
Robyns, Gwen, Light of a Star: The Career of Vivien Leigh, New York, 1971.
Memo from: David O. Selznick, edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.
Edwards, Anne, Vivien Leigh: A Biography, New York, 1977.
Lasky, Jesse Jr., with Pat Silver, Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, New York, 1978.
O'Connor, Garry, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, London, 1984.
Taylor, John Russell, Vivien Leigh, London, 1984.
Walker, Alexander, Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, London, 1987.
Vickers, Hugo, Vivien Leigh, London, 1988.
McBean, Angus, Vivien Leigh: A Love Affair in Camera, Oxford, 1989.
Guandalini, Gina, Vivien Leigh, Rome, 1990.
Molt, Cynthia Marylee, Vivien Leigh: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1992.
On LEIGH: articles—
Current Biography 1946, New York, 1946.
Raper, M., "They Called Her a Dresden Shepherdess," in Films and Filming (London), August 1955.
Bowers, Ronald, "Vivien Leigh," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1965.
Obituary, in New York Times, 9 July 1967.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 5 July 1984.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1986.
Stars (Mariembourg), March 1990.
Scalzo, T.A., "Hollywood's Helens of Troy," in Hollywood: Then and Now, no. 10, 1990.
Edwards, Anne, "Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier: Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights Stars in England," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Cahir, Linda Costanzo, "The Artful Rerouting of A Streetcar Named Desire," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1994.
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Vivien Leigh was a complex personality though she appeared at first to be just a petite, distinctly upper-class young girl with an unusual, refined kind of beauty that seemed to approach perfection. She was determined to go on the stage in spite of a privileged upbringing, a convent education, and an early marriage which brought her a house in Mayfair. By 1935 she had appeared on the London stage and in her first film.
It was her romantic supporting role in Fire over England in 1936, opposite Laurence Olivier as a dashing young man in the court of Elizabeth I, that led to one of the cinema's most celebrated acting partnerships, as famous a love-match in its time as that between Burton and Taylor in the 1960s. Olivier's Hollywood engagement to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights drew Leigh to California in his wake, and her arrival coincided with the prolonged search for a suitable actress to appear as the seductive, self-willed Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. In the face of the fiercest competition, Myron Selznick persuaded his brother David to give her the part, and her success in a role that seemed made to her measure led to world fame and an Academy Award. Nevertheless, her special qualities—elfin stature, a grace of movement and gesture, and a porcelain-like facial beauty always enhanced by subtle black-and-white cinematography—had already been revealed in the romantic British film St. Martin's Lane, opposite Charles Laughton as a street entertainer entranced by her vagrant, waiflike girl.
The outbreak of World War II brought Olivier back to London, and Leigh (who was free to marry him only in 1940 due to the complications of their respective divorces) temporarily halted her promising Hollywood career in order to be with him during his period of war service in the Fleet Air Arm. Nevertheless, she appeared with Robert Taylor in the American film Waterloo Bridge, made in Britain, and with Olivier in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman, in which she was again able to play the siren in a romanticized version of the notorious, obsessive relationship between Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton.
From this point on, Leigh was to maintain an active stage career, together with infrequent film appearances. She worked closely with Olivier in many stage productions, notably Shakespearean seasons in Britain and America. She was effective in Gabriel Pascal's ponderous screen adaptation of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and as the ill-fated heroine in Julien Duvivier's filming of Anna Karenina. Having played Blanche Dubois in Olivier's London stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, she was invited by Elia Kazan to recreate the role in his 1951 screen version of the Tennessee Williams play.
One wishes Leigh had not treated the movies disdainfully in favor of living up to the demands of being Lady Olivier on stage. Despite health problems stemming from tuberculosis and spells of nervous exhaustion, she managed to enchant audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, even winning a Tony Award for her musical comedy brio in Tovarich. It is one of the cinema's great ironies that a genteel Englishwoman's most notable screen roles were both quintessentially American Southern belles. In inhabiting the fierce soul of Dixie in Gone with the Wind and then illuminating the decline visited upon Southern hospitality in Streetcar Named Desire, Leigh rose to the occasion of giving definitive interpretations to two great roles in one lifetime. If one examines Joanne Whaley-Kilmer chafing udder her starched petticoats in television's Scarlett or Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange riding their respective Streetcars, one is confronted with understudies barely scratching the surface of indelible creations Leigh clawed to singular life. If Tennessee Williams's The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone fails to camouflage its homosexual undercurrents, Leigh brings great dignity to a crudely directed film about the symbolic link between death and the decay of desirability. After this hothouse chronicle of the unloved (which can be viewed as a menopausal horror film), she turned up her pert nose at another gambol through the magnolias, the scary Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and instead graced the stage once more. Booked aboard the metaphoric claptrap of Ship of Fools, Stanley Kramer's floating Judgment at Nuremberg, Leigh sails above her material with a luminous portrait of a coquette unwilling to sell herself short despite the ravages of time. Magically when Leigh does the Charleston, the years melt away; Leigh always acted with her entire being, and one can sense her feeding the role of Mrs. Treadwell with her own despair about time running out. Whatever physical or psychological demons she wrestled with, she was never an actress for half-measures and she danced out of her film career on a high note on the high dramatic seas of Ship of Fools. She died in 1967 while rehearsing with Michael Redgrave for a stage production of Albee's Delicate Balance.
—Roger Manvell, updated by Robert Pardi