While everyone is trying to remember the fifth of November for something having to do with a failed plot to bring down the monarchy, let’s pause to remember that the fifth of November is also the birthday of one Vivian Mary Hartley, whom the world will go on to recognize as Vivien Leigh.
Born in Darjeeling, India to a British officer father and an Irish (and possibly Indian) mother, Vivian Mary Hartley spend the first few years of her life in India. As a teenager, she was enrolled in school in London, where she met and befriended future Tarzan star Maureen O’Sullivan. Both girls shared an ambition to be in the theater, but Maureen at two years older, seemed to be on the fast track, whereas Vivian was pulled from school after a couple of years and taken abroad by her father. At any rate, upon returning to London in her late teens, her father enrolled her in the Royal Academy of Art to study acting. By all accounts, she was pretty serious about the craft, aspiring to be in league with veteran stage actress Dame Marie Tempest. After scoring supporting roles in a number of films, she changed her name to Vivien Leigh and began her career in earnest with the role of Cynthia in the period drama Fire Over England.
Arguably to become one of the most recognizable faces to come out of the Hollywood Golden Age, Leigh was pretty much thrust into the superstar spotlight from the moment she set foot on American soil. Her breakout role was as Scarlett O’Hara, having been imported from England by Myron Selznick, Lawrence Olivier’s manager and the brother of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The legend that she showed up on the set during the filming of the burning of Atlanta after a desperate search for the perfect actress to play the role of Scarlett, and Selznick taking one look at her beautiful face, framed by black curls and her bright green eyes flickering in the light of the flames and exclaiming “We’ve found our Scarlett!” … It’s pretty much Hollywood PR bullshit.
While the search for an actress to play Scarlett was intense (no less than the likes of Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Claudette Colbert had cast their hats into the ring for the coveted role), Leigh was more or less the only one Selznick considered seriously from the outset, despite admitting she was the “Scarlett dark horse” at one point. It helped that she was currently Olivier’s mistress at the time of the casting, and with his backing and the influence of Selznick’s brother, it was mostly a done deal. Selznick was a little worried that Leigh was “too British” to play the part of the spitfire Southern Belle, but her screen test apparently put to rest any concerns that she could act the part, not just look it.
Already known for the acclaimed costume drama Fire Over England, Leigh had positioned herself in British cinema as an up and coming star when she landed the role of Scarlett. Two years after Fire Over England, she signed on to the production and became world famous almost overnight.
I will try not to overwhelm this post with costumes from Gone With The Wind, since we are planning on podcasting it soon, but I think I speak for a lot of us historical costumers when I say that Gone With The Wind was our gateway drug into the world of historical reenactment and costuming. I discovered the movie at age 12 (right around the same time I was introduced to the Renaissance Faire, now that I think about it…) when it was re-released in theaters for its 50th anniversary. My mom shoved the book in my hands shortly thereafter and I remember spending a week laid up in bed with strep throat, totally immersed in the world of Scarlett O’Hara. I was a few years away from discovering critical theory and so the fact that it glossed over all the icky bits concerning slavery totally didn’t register. What I cared about was the dresses. OMG THE DRESSES.
(I did spend a lot of time in high school and early college deconstructing the underlying racism of Mitchell’s whitewashing of post-Civil War Southern society. But still. THE DRESSES.)
[Interesting side note, How We Do Run On, a web project dedicated to Gone With The Wind, ran a series on the outfits designed by Plunkett and where he may have pulled his inspiration from period sources. It’s well worth the scroll-through, as it becomes quickly apparent that although the costuming in GWTW suffers from some 1930s-ification, Plunkett was staying truer to the period of the 1860s than most other movie costumers of his era.]
After Gone With The Wind and her relationship with Olivier secured (they married in 1940), she went on to star in That Hamilton Woman (1941) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Though Hamilton was well-received, Caesar and Cleopatra was described as “a box office stinker.” During the production, Leigh had discovered she was pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. Accounting for the emotional toll the filming took on her, as well as its failure in theaters, she fell into a deep depression and turned inward. Having been diagnosed at some point with bipolar disorder, she and Olivier had a frequently contentious relationship, with both having been known to slap one another in public during rows, though both remained committed to one another for another ten years before splitting.
In the fall of 1949, Leigh would originate the only role that ever come close to equalling her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. The stage production, directed by Olivier, was successful enough to run for a full 326 performances (despite being occasionally panned in the press) before Hollywood plucked Leigh off the stage to perform the role of Blanche in the film version, opposite Marlon Brando. Her performance earned her a second Oscar for Best Actress at the 24th Academy Awards and was without a doubt the tour de force role in her career. The gritty role, however, would take a toll on her emotional state, and she sunk further into mental illness.In 1953, she was pulled from the filming of Elephant Walk and replaced by Elizabeth Taylor, on account of her worsening mental state. She began an affair with former Elephant Walk co-star Peter Finch around this time, which further derailed her emotionally, as it created a rift in her relationship with Olivier that, ultimately, would prove their undoing. She returned to the stage in the mid-50s and had a successful run at Stratford-upon-Avon in lead roles in Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Titus Adronicus, before returning to film in 1955’s The Deep Blue Sea. Finally splitting from Olivier, Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, which sounded more like an exchange of a mental patient between doctors than the ending of one relationship and the beginning of another. She stayed with Merivale, who was considered to be a stabilizing presence, for the rest of her life.
Throughout the years of 1960-1967, she continued to work, starting in both stage and film. However, in 1967, she experienced a reoccurrence of tuberculosis, which weakened her considerably, despite the appearance that she had recovered enough to resume working. On July 7, 1967, Merivale discovered her unconscious on the floor. She never did regain consciousness, and was declared dead on July 8, at the age of fifty-three.
And now I’m looking at the clock and realizing what was supposed to be a quick and dirty post about it being Vivien Leigh’s birthday has turned into a biography of a very complicated person. I’m just going to end it here, because the decline of her life is sad and tragic, and I’d rather remember her as plucky Scarlett O’Hara who flounced around singing “Fiddle-dee-dee!” to life’s problems. If you want to know more about Leigh’s life and career, check out the recently published Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait for the full story of her incredibly complex life.
In the meantime, grab the nearest bottle of cologne and take a swig in honor of what would have been her 101st birthday.