If one were to make a list of the most famous stars of the Golden Age of Film, Vivien Leigh would most likely be in the top ten. In fact, she could well be "number one" on the list. This is all the more remarkable given how few films she actually made. In her entire career, from her first appearance in Things are Looking Up in 1935 to her final appearance in Ship of Fools in 1965, she only made 19 films. The simple fact is that today Vivien Leigh remains more famous than many stars of the era who made many more motion pictures. It was 100 years ago today that Miss 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.
While Vivien Leigh was a busy stage actress in the mid-Thirties, she also appeared in several films during the period as well. In 1935 she appeared in such films as Gentlemen's Agreement (1935), Look Up and Laugh (1935), and The Village Squire (1935); however, it would be the 1937 film Fire Over England that would prove to be one of the most important films of her life. Fire Over England centred on the English victory over the Spanish Armada during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Vivien Leigh played one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, Cynthia, while Laurence Olivier played her lover Michael Ingolby. It was during Fire Over England that Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier began an affair, despite each of them being married to other people. Following Miss Leigh's divorce from Leigh Holman and Laurence Olivier's divorce from actress Jill Esmond, the two would be married on 31 August 1940. Laurence Olivier would have an enormous impact on Miss Leigh's career, and over the years the two of them would collaborate on many projects together.
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.
While today it seems inconceivable that anyone but Vivien Leigh could play Scarlett O'Hara, at the time her casting in the role was not received as good news by everyone. No less than columnist Hedda Hopper said that casting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett would be like casting Ann Sheridan or any other typical American girl as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. It probably did not help that Miss Leigh, then largely unknown in the United States, beat out such well known actresses as Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett (although the front runner for the role was Paulette Goddard, then perhaps best known for her role in Modern Times). Any naysayers would be effectively silenced with the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta on 15 December 1939. Her performance as Scarlett O'Hara was almost universally lauded by critics, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress as well.
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.
Miss Leigh continued to appear on stage in such productions as Richard III, Skin of Our Teeth, The School for Scandal, and Antigone. It was in 1949 that she played Blanche DuBois in the West End production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Besides Scarlett O'Hara, it would become the role with which she was most identified. She was cast in the role of Blanche in the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, the only actor playing a major role who was not a part of the original Broadway cast (Jessica Tandy had originated the role on Broadway). The film proved to be Vivien Leigh's most lauded motion picture since Gone with the Wind. It received almost universally good reviews from critics. A Streetcar Named Desire would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and Miss Leigh would win her second Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Blanche.
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.
The Sixties would see Vivien Leigh appear in the stage productions Twelfth Night, The Lady of the Camellias, Tovarich, The Contessa, and Ivanov. She only made two more films: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965). In Ship of Fools Vivien Leigh played her final film role, that of divorcée Mary Treadwell, another Southern belle like Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois. The film was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Picture) and won the awards for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White. While Vivien Leigh was not nominated for her role as Mary Treadwell, it was one of the best performances of her film career and certainly a good role for which it to end.
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.