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Vivien Leigh: A Young, Hot Star Who Owned Hollywood From Day One

Entertainment | November 5, 2019

Vivien Leigh on the set of 'Gone with the Wind,' based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell and directed by Victor Fleming. (Photo by Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

She'll be forever known as Scarlett O'Hara, but Vivien Leigh was more than the Gone With The Wind (1939) character. Leigh had a fearlessness and gumption that her character shared, traits that didn't always charm those around her. But it's fair to say she was born to play Scarlett -- that was the opinion of British director Victor Saville, who was one of the first people in the UK to read Margaret Mitchell's novel. "Vivien, I've just read a great story for the movies about the bitchiest of all bitches," he told her over the phone, "and you're just the person to play the part."

Leigh is also closely associated with another difficult Southern belle, Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In a 30-year film career, she only made 19 films in total and won two Best Actress Oscars (for Blanche and Scarlett). Leigh was brash, wild, sometimes unhinged and occasionally dangerous -- though the word "diva" has become overused in recent years, that's what she was, back then -- one of the great divas of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, the role that made her famous. Source: (bfi)

With her stunning good looks, fiery personality, and near-photographic memory that allowed her to memorize her lines after only one or two readings of a play, Vivien Leigh is one of the best-known British actresses of her time. She was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, India. At six, her parents sent her to England to be educated in a convent and she continued her convent education in Germany, France, and Italy.

Her acting career began at three when she recited “Little Bo Peep” for her mother’s theater group. By 1935, she had her first role in a film, reading one line as an extra in Things are Looking Up.

Early Career And First Marriage

With her first husband, on their wedding day. Source: (Parade)

She attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where she met her future husband, barrister Herbert Leigh Holman, an older man who did not like the theater. They married when Leigh was 19 and the couple had a daughter. When Leigh’s agent wanted her to choose a stage name, she chose to change the spelling of her first name and used her husband’s middle name as her last, although her agent suggested that she call herself April Morn.

Despite her marriage to Holman, when she saw Laurence Olivier in a play, she told her friend that she was going to marry Olivier. She visited him in his dressing room. The pair were later cast together in Fire Over England and began an affair, which lasted until 1940 when they divorced their respective spouses and married.

She Lands A Role Suiting Her Personality

With Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. Source: (IMDB).

In 1939, Leigh won her first Best Actress Oscar in her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. When casting the part of O’Hara, the initial director, George Cukor, said that he needed an actress who was “possessed of the devil and charged with electricity,” but he also needed to find a diminutive actress to fill the physical requirements of the role. Leigh fits the role perfectly. For this film, she worked 16 hour days, six days a week and, perhaps to combat the exhaustion, she began chain-smoking four packs a day. She worked for 125 days and made $25,000. Clark Gable, who played the role of Rhett Butler, worked only 71 days and made $120,000.

A Strong Personality Behind The Beauty

She poses with a (reportedly) defanged cobra. Source: (pinterest).

Although she considered Scarlett a “silly girl,” an appraisal based mainly on Scarlett’s self-centered nature, Leigh did have some of the fire that was part of the character. While on a visit to India, she draped a defanged cobra around her neck; she also was expelled from Parliament after interrupting a debate to protest the demolition of the St. James Theater.

With Claude Rains in Caesar and Cleopatra. Source: (IMDB).

After her success, she auditioned for a role in Rebecca, which Olivier had already been cast in. The role, Mrs. DeWinter, was timid, a character not suited to her personality. Ultimately, Joan Fontaine was cast in the role.

While Leigh was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), tragedy struck. She had recently found out that she was pregnant with Olivier’s child. During the filming of one scene, she slipped and fell while running across a polished floor. The incident led to a miscarriage, after which Leigh was said to be more erratic. She suffered from depression, stayed up all night and became hyperactive, lashing out at people. In truth, there had been murmurs about her mental state as early as 1937, when she played Ophelia in Hamlet opposite Olivier.

A Role That Hits A Little Too Close To Home

With Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire. Source: (IMDB).

In 1951, Leigh won a second Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite this success, the role had consequences. Leigh identified too deeply with the character, who is herself, teetering on the edge of madness. She would later claim that the role was what “tipped” her into madness.

After that second Oscar, Leigh began filming Elephant Walk, but when she became paranoid and erratic and then started hallucinating, she was sent back to L.A. and the role went to Elizabeth Taylor. On the flight there, she attempted to jump out of the plane and then, while in Hollywood, she refused to come out of her dressing room, screaming lines from Blanche DuBois' dialogue. After then being sent to London, she was hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy. Her illness led to an increased libido and several affairs, including one with Australian actor Peter Finch. Leigh's infidelity, coupled with her illness contributed to her divorce from Olivier after 20 years. At the time of her death, she was in a relationship with actor Jack Merivale.

A Tragic End To Her Story

Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier in That Hamilton. Source: (wikipedia).

In addition to acting in 19 films, she was an accomplished stage actress as well, acting in Shakespearean plays, as well as plays by contemporary playwrights, such as Noel Coward. She won a Tony in 1963 for the musical adaptation of Tovarich.

Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1944, which she then struggled with for the rest of her life. In July 1967, at the age of 53, her lungs filled with fluid and she died. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the lake at Tickerage Mill, in Sussex, England.

Tags: A Streetcar Named Desire | Gone With The Wind | Ladies | Laurence Olivier | Margaret Mitchell | Tennessee Williams | Vivien Leigh | What Did She Do?...

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!