I once read where a voice coach said that if you can’t get a southerner to play a southern role, get someone from Britain. Vivian Leigh is a wonderful example of that. She won two Best Actress Academy Awards for performances as southern women: Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Vivien was born in British India on November 5, 1913 as the only child of Ernest Hartley, an officer in the Indian Cavalry, and his wife Gertrude. She was educated in London and various schools throughout Europe as her parents traveled and after expressing a desire to become an actress, she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her studies ended however, in 1932, when she married Herbert Leigh Holman, possibly due to his disapproval of the profession. The following year, she gave birth to her only child, Suzanne.
Whether Holman disapproved or not, in the 1930s, Vivien took small roles in both film and on stage, taking the stage name Vivien Leigh. She became friends with Laurence Olivier and they began an affair after playing lovers in the film Fire Over England. During this time she also read the novel Gone With the Wind and decided that she wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara. Producer David Selznick was impressed by her, but thought she was “too British” to play Scarlett. Olivier was in Los Angeles at the time, so Vivien traveled there to be with him and to attempt to convince Selznick. Both Olivier and Leigh were represented by the Myron Selznick Agency and with Myron’s help (he was David’s brother) she was able to get the role.
In 1940, Jill Esmond, Olivier’s wife, and Leigh Holman agreed to divorces and Olivier and Vivien were married in August. They acted in many productions together, some successful and some not. Vivien began to experience periods typical of bipolar disorder with hyperactivity followed by depression and an explosive breakdown. She was also diagnosed with tuberculosis. Together they resulted in times when she was unable to work. It also began to take a toll on their marriage.
The role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire was another role that Vivien sought. The West End stage production began in October of 1949 and ran for 326 performances. She was cast in the role for the film version immediately after the show closed. The film version received glowing reviews and resulted in her second Academy Award for Best Actress. It also was the beginning of a period of decline in Vivien’s health and mental stability.
While filming with Peter Finch in Ceylon in 1953, Vivien suffered a breakdown which resulted in her replacement and return to London. During her recovery, many of her friends became aware of her condition for the first time. She also confessed to Olivier that she had been having an affair with Finch that began in 1948. Vivien and Olivier continued to work together, but believing her marriage over, she began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale in 1958.
Merivale was aware of her condition and seemed to be a stabilizing influence over her. She also received support from her first husband who had retained custody of their daughter. Olivier and Leigh divorced in 1960, but in spite of periods of depression she was able to continue working throughout the early 1960s. However, in May of 1967, Vivien suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis. Although she appeared to be recovering, on the night of July 7, Merivale found her on the floor of her bedroom where she had collapsed and died.
Vivien Leigh definitely had her critics and due to her struggles with bipolar disorder, she had a reputation of being difficult to work with and periods of inactivity in her career. But she also had periods of brilliance and in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her as the sixteenth greatest movie star of all time.
Find out what else happened on November 5 in Women’s History.