by Susan King
In 1999, the American Film Institute proclaimed Vivien Leigh the 16th greatest movie star during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Pretty impressive since the stunningly beautiful British actress, born on Nov. 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, British India, only made 19 films during her 30-year-plus career.
But two of those are landmark films in which she gave equally landmark performances. The petite, hauntingly beautiful Leigh won best actress Oscars playing two indelible Southern belles — the fiery Scarlett O’Hara in the enormously popular 1939 Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind” and as the unstable and delicate faded beauty Blanche DuBois in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“There is something really visceral about her performances,” author and film scholar Kendra Bean (“Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait”) told me in a 2013 L.A. Times interview. “She never would have called herself a method actor by any means, but she really used her life experiences to forward these characters.”
Instead of revisiting her two most famous roles for her 110th birthday, check out the films she made in England before she met “GWTW” (“Gone with the Wind”) producer in December 1938 and her career changed forever.
After appearing in small roles in four films, Leigh got her first substantial part in the 1937 historical drama “Fire Over England” with Laurence Olivier. Leigh, who was married with a young daughter, met the equally married Olivier in 1935. That same year, she also signed a five-year-contract with film producer Alexander Korda. Leigh and Olivier fell in love during the making of the film that finds Leigh as the beautiful lady-in-waiting to Elizbeth I (Flora Robson) who is madly in love with the hunky Michael Ingolby.
To avoid a scandal, the married lovers had to keep their affair secret. Their relationship became even stronger during the production in 1937 of “21 Days Together,” a wan melodrama about a young couple who attempt to enjoy as much happiness as they can in the three weeks before Larry Darrant (Olivier) turns himself in for killing Wanda’s (Leigh) husband.
Alexander Korda meddled his way through the production causing rifts with director Basi Dean and screenwriter Graham Greene. The producer decided to hold up the release of the film in the U.S., finally opening it in 1940 after the Leigh’s success in “GWTW” and Olivier’s in “Wuthering Heights.” Supposedly, the couple attended a screening in New York but walked out before the film ended.
In 1937’s enjoyable “Dark Journey,” Leigh plays a French spy doubling as a German spy stationed in Stockholm during World War I who falls in love with a suave German spy (Conrad Veidt). According to TCM.com, Leigh considered the film a personal failure “because to her, it was not a good representation of her acting. She couldn’t understand her character or the plot… she had no interest in being appreciated simply for physical beauty.”
She had no problem understanding her next film, 1937’s ‘Storm in a Teacup,” a charming little comedy. One doesn’t usually equate Leigh with the comedy genre but she’s quite funny as the perky daughter of a snobbish Scottish tow official (Cecil Parker). Rex Harrison in his first major film role plays a young reporter at a newspaper who takes on Parker while pursuing Leigh.
Though “GWTW” was Leigh’s first Hollywood film, it wasn’t her first American production. She has a smart part as a flirtatious young woman in MGM’s 1938 “A Yank in Oxford” with Robert Taylor and Maureen O’Sullivan. It was the studio’s first production in England; MGM’s studio head Louis B Mayer clashed with the producer Michael Balcon who eventually resigned from the film. But it was Balcon — Daniel Day-Lewis’ grandfather — who convinced Mayer to use her in the film.
“St. Martin’s Lane” was released in England in 1938 and arrived in the U.S. in 1940. It’s sort of an odd variation of “A Star is Born.” Charles Laughton plays a busker who entertains audiences standing in line for the theater by reciting poems and monologues. One evening he takes in a young pickpocket (Leigh) after he sees her dancing. He and a few of his busker buddies join forces with her as a quartet. She catches the attention of a songwriter and impresario (Rex Harrison) and leaves Laughton to become the toast of London’s West End. Meanwhile, Laughton turns to the bottle for solace. Though Leigh tries to help him, it’s too late.
Leigh could have become a superstar in Hollywood after “Gone with the Wind,” but she wanted to do theater; primarily with Olivier, to whom she was married to from 1940-1960. He even directed her on the London stage in the 1949 production of “Streetcar.” Bean believes the actress looked up at her husband as “sort of a mentor. She always referred to him as the greatest actor, even though she had her own talents. But as far as their personal relationship, it was really close in the beginning, and then there came a point where he couldn’t handle it because of her mental disorder. I think he had to move on.”
Leigh not only suffered from bipolar depression — she endured several electroconvulsive therapy treatments — she also had tuberculosis, which ultimately led to her death at the age of 53 in 1967.
In his autobiography, Olivier wrote about the strain in their relationships due to her mental illness: “Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness — an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble.”
While Olivier married Joan Plowright after their divorce with whom he had three children, Leigh found happiness with actor Jack Merivale. “He was a really good influence on her,” said Bean. “He was gentle and patient.”
Leigh continued acting on stage — she won the Tony for lead actress in a musical for 1963’s “Tovarich” and made her final appearance on Broadway in 1966 in the short-lived revival of Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov.” Leigh also starred in the 1961’s drama “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” and four years later made her final film “Ship of Fools.”
The actress had begun rehearsals with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” in May 1967 when her TB reoccurred. She had been rallying only to lose her long battle with the disease on July 8th.
Noel Coward wrote to Olivier after her death: “She always reminded me of a bird of paradise. Perhaps now she can find her own.”
Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.