Saturday, July 07, 2007
Vivien Leigh: Britain's finest- and most tragic- actress
Forty years ago tonight, Britain's greatest ever actress died.
Here's my piece from today's Daily Express on the tormented life of the late, great Vivien Leigh.
She is immortalised as the star of Gone With The Wind, one of the most successful films of all time, and is the only British woman to win two Best Actress Oscars. She and her husband Laurence Olivier were Britain's first celebrity golden couple. And Vivien Leigh was an astonishing beauty in her heyday. Only last year she was voted the Most Beautiful British Woman of all time, beating the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Catherine Zeta Jones. Yet Vivien Leigh's life was a tragic one. She died 40 years ago this weekend at the age of just 53. The marriage to Olivier had ended in heartbreak, She suffered from tuberculosis (which killed her) and - more significantly - manic depression. For it was the latter which led to her violent mood swings and uncontrollable behaviour, which at times bordered on insanity. Worse still, her mental illness often manifested itself in nymphomania, which led her to having sex with strangers in London parks.
Certainly her gilded early life suggested nothing of the troubles ahead. She was a child of the Empire, and while pregnant, her mother spent half an hour a day staring at the Himalayas in the hope that some of their beauty would be transferred to her baby. Her faith was repaid: even at an early age is was clear that Vivian (she later changed the spelling of her Christian name) would be stunningly beautiful. It was a life of privilege; her parents were well-off and she was waited on hand and foot by servants. As an only child, she was constantly reminded by her mother that she was special. Once when she asked why fireworks were being let off on 5th November, she was told 'it's for your birthday, darling". But her pampered childhood came to an abrupt end when she was sent away to convent school in England at the age of just six and a half. Her biographer, Alexander Walker, believed the change had a profound effect on Vivien's mental health. She was two years younger than all the other children and didn't see her mother for almost two years. But it was at the convent that her interest in drama began. "When I leave school I'm going to be a great actress" she confided to a friend, demonstrating for the first time her fierce single-mindedness.
Vivien also knew what she exactly what she wanted when it came to finding a husband. In 1932, at the age of 18, she caught sight of a handsome man on horseback out riding with the local hunt. "I'm going to marry him," she told her friend. It made no difference that the man, Leigh Holman, was 13 years her senior and already engaged: Vivien, not for the last time, got her way. But settling down to a life of domesticity held no interest for the wannabe young actress. When her daughter, Suzanne was born she simply wrote in her diary "had a baby - a girl". Vivien pestered her husband to allow her to return to drama school; to gain his approval she took his Christian name as her stage surname. Her big break came in the West End production of The Mask of Virtue in 1935. The "staggeringly beautiful" young actress earned rave reviews and was soon the talk of London's theatre-world.
It was around this time that she first set eyes on a young actor named Laurence Olivier. "That's the man I'm going to marry", she told a friend once more. Again it was pointed out to her that her latest prey was married. But once again, Vivien was determined to go to any lengths to get what she wanted. She went backstage to visit Olivier in his dressing room and in front of astonished onlookers, kissed him on his shoulder. And when she learnt that Olivier and his wife were going to Capri on holiday, she went there too, taking along a friend of her husband's as cover. Soon Leigh and Olivier were having an affair. The first film they made together was Fire Over England, where they played the role of lovers. Finally, after appearing together in a production of Hamlet, they announced they were leaving their respective spouses and setting up home together. The news scandalised the socially conservative Britain of 1937.
Even after capturing Olivier, the ultra-ambitious Vivien still had more mountains to climb. Hollywood had launched a talent search to find an actress to play the part of Scarlett O'Hara in the film version of the best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind. Although she had found fame in Britain, Leigh was still a relative unknown in Hollywood. Yet Leigh was not discouraged. She immersed herself in Margaret Mitchell's novel, learning passages of it by heart. She travelled to America, ostensibly to be with Olivier, who was filming Wuthering Heights, but really to meet his agent, Myron Selznick, brother of Gone with the Wind's producer David O. Selznick. Leigh persuaded Myron to take her, dressed as Scarlett, to the set of Gone With The Wind and introduce her to the film's producer. Selznick was enchanted with the beautiful young British actress. "Her whole life was wilful, just like Scarlett," says the film historian Tony Sloman. "She would do anything she had to get what she wanted, just as Scarlett had to." Leigh's mesmerising performance won her the 1939 Academy Award for Best Actress, one of eight Oscars the film received.
Yet although she had achieved global stardom at the age of 26, personal contentment proved elusive. While filming Caesar and Cleopatra in 1944, Leigh, then pregnant, slipped and fell, suffering a miscarriage. The stress triggered a mental breakdown and Leigh entered a manic depressive state which was to blight the rest of her life. "When she was high, she was very high indeed and almost uncontrollable; when she was low she was suicidal", records Alexander Walker. In 1951, Leigh won her second Oscar for her portrayal of the neurotic Blanche Dubois in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Her performance is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest in the history of the cinema, but it proved catastrophic for her mental health. Leigh later claimed that playing DuBois - who at the end of the film is taken away to a lunatic asylum - "tipped me over into madness". She even started to utter the character's phrases from the film in real life. A by-product of Leigh's mental illness was an insatiable desire for sex. In 1948, while touring Down Under with her husband, she embarked on an affair with the young Australian actor Peter Finch. Her affair with Finch resumed on the set of the 1953 film, Elephant Walk, when Leigh suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be flown back to Britain.
Leigh also had frequent sexual encounters with strangers. She propositioned taxi drivers and delivery men. "She was fiendish about sex" recalls her friend Joan Thring. "Once she rang me and asked me to have tea with her. I arrived half an hour later, but Vivien wasn't there. Eventually she returned. It had been raining- she was bedraggled, covered in mud and looked terrible. She had been in the square with someone. That sort of thing happened all the time".
While outwardly, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier were still the golden couple of the British film and theatre world, their marriage came under increasing strain. Olivier could not satisfy his wife's sexual appetite and there were frequent rows, sometimes of a violent nature. Finally, in 1960, after 23 years together, the great romance was over. The couple divorced and Olivier married the actress Joan Plowright. Leigh was heartbroken. She blamed Plowright for the break-up, forgetting about her own affair with Peter Finch. Her manic depression continued to plague her. Today, those suffering from depression can be prescribed pills or can book into an expensive clinic. In Leigh's time, the only treatment was ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) which entailed electrodes being placed on the patient's temples. A friend of Leigh's went to see her after one such bout of treatment and recalls seeing the great Oscar-winning actress crawling on the ground digging with her hands. Leigh didn't even recognise her.
Yet while Leigh could at times be impossible to live with, she was in other ways a kind and generous person. "She had energy and ebullience all the time," remembers Cyril Kegan-Smith, a costume supervisor at the Royal Shakespeare Company. "She was a very friendly person and not at all stand-offish. We all loved her".
Leigh's last film was Ship of Fools, made in 1965. In ailing physical and mental health, she played a down-on-her-luck divorcee, giving a performance so moving that many felt she deserved a third Oscar. The parallels between her character and Leigh in real life seemed only too real. "I am a Scorpio," she once said. "And they eat themselves up and burn themselves out. I swing between happiness and misery. I say what I think and I don't pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my own actions".