Tuesday, 5 November 2013
100 Years Ago Today Vivien Leigh Was Born
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on 5 November 1913 in Darjeeling, West Bengal, British India. She made her stage debut when she was only three years old, playing Bo Peep in a charity production in Mussoorie.British India. She was six years old when she was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, London. Among Vivian Hartley's classmates was another little girl who would become a famous actress, Maureen O'Sullivan. Vivian was only seven years old when she told young Maureen of her ambition to become "a great actress." It was while at the Covent of Sacred Heart that young Vivian began preparing for a career as an entertainer. She appeared in the school's productions of various plays. She also studied piano and violin, and even played the cello in the Covent of the Sacred Heart's orchestra. She also appeared in the school's productions of various plays.
After Vivian Hartley left the Covent of the Sacred Heart she spent the next several years at various finishing schools in Europe. She became fluent in French, German, and Italian. At age 18 she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. In 1931 she met Herbert Leigh Holman and the two were married in 1932. It was from Mr. Holman that Vivian Hartely would take the name by which she would forever be known, Vivien Leigh. While the two would later divorce, Leigh Holman and Miss Leigh would remain friends for the rest of her life. It was on 12 October 1933 that she gave birth to their daughter Suzanne.
The year 1935 would prove to be a pivotal one for Vivien Leigh. She made her screen debut in a small, uncredited role as a schoolgirl in the film Things Are Looking Up. She also appeared in her first substantial role on stage on London's West End, playing Giusta in The Green Sash; however, it would be her appearance as Henriette Duquesnoy in the play The Mask of Virtue that would make Miss Leigh a star. Prior to the premiere of The Mask of Virtue on 15 May 1935 very few people probably realised who Vivien Leigh was. After its premiere it would have been difficult to find anyone among the theatre going public who did not know who she was. Although today most people think of Vivien Leigh as a film star, she was really much more of a stage actress, appearing in many more plays in her career than she did films. In the wake of the success of The Mask of Virtue she appeared in such productions as Richard III, The Happy Hypocrite, Henry VIII, and Because We Must.
Not only would Fire Over England lead to what was arguably the most significant relationship in Vivien Leigh's life, but it would also prove to be one of the most important stepping stones in her career. During his search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick watched both Fire Over England and A Yank Over Oxford (1938). Although he was impressed with Miss Leigh, he ultimately thought she was too British to play the role of Scarlett. According to legend, when Myron Selznick (who was not only David O. Selznick's brother, but Laurence Olivier's agent as well) watched Fire Over England that he decided Vivien Leigh would be the perfect Scarlett O'Hara. Fortunately, David O. Selznick would reconsider his opinion of Vivien Leigh and she was cast in the role of a lifetime.
Of course, Vivien Leigh would appear in several films before her star making turn as Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. She starred in the comedy Storm in a Teacup in 1937. She also appeared in her first film produced by an American studio, MGM's A Yank at Oxford (1938), alongside her friend from school Maureen O'Sullivan, Her last film prior to Gone with the Wind would be Sidewalks of London co-starring Rex Harrison. Vivien Leigh was also busy on the stage. She appeared as Ophelia in Hamlet alongside Laurence Olivier in 1937, as well as productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Serena Blandish.
Not only would Gone with the Wind not only transformed Vivien Leigh into an international film star nearly overnight, it also became the highest grossing film of all time (a title it still bears when adjusted for inflation). With such success many actresses would have launched into a lengthy film career with many films to their credit. This was not the case with Vivien Leigh. 21 Days, a film co-starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver and filmed in 1937, was finally released in order to capitalise on the success of Gone with the Wind. Her first film following Gone with the Wind would be Waterloo Bridge (1940), based on the Robert E. Sherwood play of the same name and co-starring Robert Taylor. In 1941 Vivien Leigh starred as Emma, Lady Hamilton in Lady Hamilton (entitled That Lady Hamilton in the United States) opposite Laurence Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson. Her film career in the United States would be interrupted by the outbreak World War II. Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver chose to return to Britain.
Vivien Leigh would not make another film for four years, although she remained active on stage. Over the next several years she appeared in productions of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, The School for Scandal, and The Skin of Our Teeth. Her return to film was in Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945. She played Cleopatra opposite Claude Rains as Julius Caesar. She also appeared in the title role in Anna Karenina (1948). Sadly, neither film was a success at the box office.
Even after the success of A Streetcar Named Desire Vivien Leigh would not be particularly prolific when it came to film. During the Fifties she only made one more film, The Deep Blue Sea (1955), based on Terence Rattigan's play of the same name. She continued to appear on stage throughout the decade in productions of Ceasar and Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, and Duel of Angels. The year 1960 would also see the end of her marriage to Sir Laurence Olivier. The two divorced that year.
Sadly, it was on the evening of 7 July 1967 that Vivien Leigh died at the age of 53. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1944, and it would be that disease that would ultimately take her from us far too soon.
Today, nearly seventy five years after the world first saw her as Scarlett O'Hara, Vivien Leigh remains one of the most famous and most beloved actresses of all time. There can be little doubt that much of this is due to her incredible beauty. In a poll conducted by Max Factor in 1940 among American women Vivien Leigh was voted the most beautiful film star, beating out such worthy contenders as Hedy Lamarr and Madeleine Carroll. In a 2006 poll conducted by the Bottlegreen Drinks company Vivien Leigh was voted the most beautiful British woman of all time, beating out Elizabeth Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Princess Diana. There can be no doubt that Vivien Leigh was incredibly beautiful. What is more, her beauty did not seem to fade with age. She was as beautiful in Ship of Fools as she was in Gone with the Wind.
While Vivien Leigh may well have been the most beautiful woman of all time, that does not explain why she has maintained such a fascination for people nearly fifty years after her death. After all, there have been other beautiful actresses, many with more extensive filmographies than Vivien Leigh, who have long since been forgotten by the public at large. The answer is that Vivien Leigh was not simply beautiful, but that she was also an exceedingly talented actress. Vivien Leigh did not make such an impact as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind simply because she was drop gorgeous. She made an impact as Scarlett O'Hara because she was able to convince the viewer that she was Scarlett.
Of course, today many seem to treat Scarlett O'Hara as the sum total of Vivien Leigh's career. In truth, however, she played many great roles over the years and did so convincingly. What is more, those roles were often a varied lot. As Emma, Lady Hamilton, in Lady Hamilton Miss Leigh played a woman who was as strong willed as she was coquettish. She was equally convincing in Waterloo Bridge, in which she goes from a sweet natured ballerina to a woman who finds her life torn apart from war. And while there are those who consider Vivien Leigh's performance in the title role in Anna Karenina inferior to that of Greta Garbo, I actually prefer it. To me Miss Leigh was much more convincing as Anna, the aristocrat who risks everything on an affair. If one needs no further proof that Scarlett O'Hara was not Vivien Leigh's only great role, one need look no further than A Streetcar Named Desire. While both are Southern belles, there could be no different character from Scarlett than Blanche. Scarlett is a strong willed woman who self reliant nearly to the point of ruthlessness. Blanche is a fragile woman who constantly relied on others for support. Scarlett needs no kindness from strangers (although one suspects she would take it if offered). For Blanche it is a way of life.
It is not simply for her beauty, then, that Vivien Leigh is still remembered today. She was an extremely talented actress who was able to make a lasting impression on film goers with only 19 films to her name. This is all the more remarkable given her bouts with both tuberculosis and biploar disorder. In many respects Vivien Leigh had as tragic a life as any of the heroines she played, yet she was still capable of delivering far better performances than many actors with happier lives. It should then be no surprise that Vivien Leigh is still regarded as one of the best loved actresses of all time 100 years after her birth and nearly 50 years after her death.