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Ringside Report Puts the Spotlight on Vivien Leigh


By Geoffrey Huchel

Vivien Leigh, born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, was an English stage and film actress. She was an only child to Ernest Richard Hartley, a British broker, and his wife, Gertrude Mary Frances. Despite her fame as a screen actress, Leigh was primarily a stage performer and a very skilled dancer.

Throughout her youth and teen years Vivian traveled with her parents and attended schools in Europe, becoming fluent in both French and Italian. In 1931, when the family returned to Britain, she attended the play A Connecticut Yankee, and told her parents of her ambitions to become an actress. Shortly after, her father enrolled her at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Leigh’s friends suggested she take a small, uncredited role as a schoolgirl in the film THINGS ARE LOOKING UP (1935). She found an agent, John Gliddon, who suggested she change her name. After rejecting his many suggestions, she took Vivian Leigh as her professional name. Leigh’s agent recommended her to Alexander Korda as a possible film actress, but Korda declined. Leigh was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue, directed by Sidney Carroll. Leigh received excellent reviews. Interviews and newspaper articles followed. Korda, who attended Leigh’s opening night performance, admitted his error and signed her to a film contract. Here’s a little trivia about how Vivian became Vivien: Director Sidney Carroll had revised the playbill with the spelling of her first name from an a to an e. That’s how she became the legendary Vivien Leigh.

Her first credited film role was the comedy THE VILLAGE SQUIRE (1935). Following that film she appeared in two more films in 1935- LOOK UP AND LAUGH and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. For the next few years Leigh’s career was starting to gain traction with appearances in STORM IN A TEACUP (1937), FIRE OVER ENGLAND (1937) starring Laurence Olivier, DARK JOURNEY (1937), SIDEWALKS OF LONDON (1938) and A YANK AT OXFORD (1938), appearing with Lionel Barrymore and Robert Taylor.

It was Leigh’s next role when she became an international star-1939’s war epic GONE WITH THE WIND, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell. Leigh read the novel and instructed her agent to recommend her to David O’ Selznick, who was planning a film version. During this time, Hollywood was in the midst of a widely publicized search to find an actress to portray Scarlet O’Hara. In February, 1938, Leigh made a request to O’ Selznick’s brother, Myron, that she be considered to play the part. David O’ Selznick had seen her performances in her previous films, and thought she was excellent, but in no way possible to play a Southern Belle because she was deemed “too British”. Leigh travelled to Los Angeles to try to convince O’ Selznick that she was the right actress for the part. Like O’Hara, Leigh was determined to get what she wanted and she did. After some convincing, she was cast in the film. Leigh beat 1400 other actresses to play Scarlet O’Hara, for which she was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. The film also starred Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton. This film is in an elite group that represents the quintessential classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and has become one of the most popular films of all time. In addition to Leigh’s Oscar win, the film won a total of 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director. Leigh was absolute perfection in her role and I honestly could not imagine anyone else being our Scarlet.

Leigh was married twice; the first to Herbert Leigh Holman from December 20, 1932-February 19,1940. They had one child. In 1940, Leigh married Sir Laurence Olivier on August 31, 1940. The costars became friendly, which resulted in an affair, as the two were currently married. In 1947 Olivier was knighted and Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace. She became Lady Olivier. The two would later divorce on January 6, 1961, to which she would become known socially as Vivien, Lady Olivier.

Leigh’s next film role is another favorite- 1940’s WATERLOO BRIDGE. The World War I drama also starred Robert Taylor. The following year Leigh starred in the dramas 21 DAYS TOGETHER (1940) and THAT HAMILTON WOMAN (1941). Leigh returned to stage work in 1946, starring in a successful London production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. She followed with her next two films, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945), with Leigh portraying Cleopatra and Claude Rains portraying Caesar and ANNA KARENINA (1948), an adaptation of the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy. Neither of those films were not commercial successes.

Leigh’s stage career continued to flourish. Her next role was Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. After 326 performances, Leigh finished her run, and she was soon assigned to reprise her role as Blanche DuBois in the film version of the play. Leigh’s costar in the film A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) was Marlon Brando, with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden also making appearances. The film was another success for Leigh as she received glowing reviews, as well as a second Academy Award for Best Actress. Throughout the 1950s Leigh continued with her stage work. Her final screen appearance was in SHIP OF FOOLS (1965).

Leigh struggled with bipolar disorder most of her life, but despite her struggle with the illness, the actress crafted a legendary career. In 1944 Vivien Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and continued to battle it throughout her life. On July 8, 1967, Leigh succumbed to her illness after collapsing in her home. She was only 53 years old. In the wake of her death, the West End marquees were kept dark for an hour in her honor. Vivien Leigh was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, but she was more than just a pretty face. She was an ambitious, talented and accomplished actress who brought extreme range to each of her roles.

Vivien Leigh once said:

“I’m not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for the fake values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time and there are always marvelous parts to play.”

Essential Leigh:


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