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VIVIEN LEIGH

By Tammy Stone

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1936 Vivien Leigh Mitchell's Tobacco Card1939 Mars Confections Vivien LeighIn Hollywood’s golden era, stars shone a lot brighter than they do today – and they also shone for longer, thanks to the Hollywood studio contracts that had the best of them making movie after movie. Vivien Leigh, in true diva style, had always been an exception to the rule; her real life filled with off-screen drama and often tragedy, she’s a true Hollywood legend. She may not have made many films, but the ones she did make went down in history, and immortalized the raven-haired beauty forever.

Born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India, Leigh moved back to her parents’ native England when she was a small child. When she was just 18, she became infatuated with Leigh Holman, an older man. They soon married, and in 1933, little Suzanne Holman was born. But some people are born to be in the public eye, and for Leigh, this initially meant the British stage. Her first play was called “The Green Sash”, but she soon gained critical attention for her performance as Henriette Duquesnoy in “The Mask of Virtue.” It wasn’t long before she tackled Shakespeare, making memorable appearances in “Richard III” and “Henry VIII”.

Being on stage in England during the time of the great Sir Laurence Olivier meant they were destined to meet sooner or later. By the time they did, at the Savoy Grill, Leigh was already quite taken with the brilliant actor. Meanwhile, Hollywood was just starting to build a great appetite for actors from England, and one of the first places they looked was the thriving British theater scene (Ever notice all the British accents in old Hollywood movies? All the diction coaches came from England!). The stage was being set for serendipitous meetings on more than one level, and from 1935 on, Leigh’s life would forever be changed. Without knowing it yet, she would be leaving her modest acting success and domestic bliss behind.

That year, Leigh made her acting debut in The Village Squire, and had small parts in Things are Looking Up, Look Up and Laugh and The Gentleman’s Agreement. Her dream to work with Olivier then came true when the two paired up in 1936’s Fire over England. A roaring success, they both signed on to make another film together, Twenty-One Days. In 1937, while busy working, Leigh found the time to read Margaret Mitchell’s only  novel, “Gone With the Wind”. She couldn’t put it down, and became obsessed with starring in a film version of the book. She knew that one day, she would be Scarlett O’Hara.

Without knowing it at the time, Hollywood had also set its sites on the novel, and were looking for the perfect actress to play the lead role. A two year search finally ended when Leigh met with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick, who was utterly smitten by her. After Clark Gable and Olivia deHavilland were signed on, filming began in January, 1939. The film, we all know, was a resounding success that gets better with each viewing. An heart-breaking epic, a tumultuous saga, a torrid love affair and a Technicolor triumph, the film’s greatest asset is the sublime performance by Leigh, who won an Oscar for her role.

World War Two raging in their midst, Olivier and Leigh both got divorces in 1940 and got married in California; Katharine Hepburn was present as a witness. From here, Leigh’s life changed dramatically as she resumed her work on the British stage and was diagnosed with a tubercular patch 1939 Vivien Leigh Gallahers Tobacco Card1959 Vivien Leigh R778-1 Maple Leaf Playing Cardon her lung. She also suffered a miscarriage, while filming her next iconic role, in Caesar and Cleopatra.

While Leigh’s astonishing screen success and impossible beauty kept her in the limelight, her life was falling apart. She formed an unhealthy obsession for Olivier, her moods were erratic, and her physical condition was worsening. At times, it is told she appeared as though possessed. She was given all sorts of medications, was ordered to keep to her bed for months at a stretch, and was even given electroshock therapy. While confined to the Notley Abbey on a “rest vacation”, she read Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and again, knew she would star  in the film one day, playing aging Southern beauty Blanche DuBois.

Once Leigh recovered, she and Olivier began rehearsing for a theater rendition of Tennessee’s play, which would go on to run over 300 performances. Leigh was brought to notorious Hollywood director Elia Kazan’s attention, and he directed her in Desire in 1950, opposite Marlon Brando. This film is an enduring classic – Leigh won her second Academy award for her performance, but she was already back in England doing “Antony and Cleopatra” on the stage.

Unfortunately, Desire was Leigh’s last opportunity to shine in Hollywood, despite her almost miraculous success. Her tuberculosis was worsening, compounded by manic-depression and a lot of alcohol consumption. She found a new love interest in actor Jack Merivale, and finally, Olivier was able to get the divorce he’s wanted for some time. Leigh, meanwhile, continued doing sporadic theater and film performances, starring with Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mr. Stone.

Her star was dimming, though, mostly because of her own emotional distress that so contrasted her glorious moments on screen. Toward the end of her life, she moved into the flat she and Olivier once shared at 54 Eaton Square in London. She had a photograph of Olivier on her bedside until the day she died, on July 7, 1967. Perhaps she never gave up on a rekindling of their passionate affair, which Olivier, in the eighties, referred to as true love.

After all, tomorrow IS another day.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Beginning next issue she will appear as a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter with her column "The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone."  Look for Norma Talmadge in two weeks!

Other Vivien Leigh Pages:

A Tribute to Vivien Leigh Her life was a series of highs and lows, but we mostly remember the highs in the career of the beautiful GWTW star.
Denny Jackson's Vivien Leigh Page -- The Actress who MADE Gone With The Wind the Success It Was!