Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh

    Vivien Leigh was born November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India to a Yorkshire stockbroker. She was convent-educated in England and throughout Europe, and inspired by her schoolmate Marueen O'Sullivan to embark on an acting career. Leigh earned international popularity and an Academy Award for her unforgettable portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's production of_Gone with the Wind_.

    Famed actress Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, India, to an English stockbroker and his Irish wife. The family returned to England when Hartley was 6 years old. A year later, the precocious Hartley announced to classmate Maureen O'Sullivan that she "was going to be famous." She was right, though her fame would eventually come under a different name.

    As a teen, Vivian Hartley attended schools in England, France, Italy and Germany, becoming fluent in both French and Italian. She went on to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but put her career temporarily on hold at age 19, when she married a lawyer named Leigh Holman and had his daughter. Replacing the "a" in her first name with the less commonly used "e," Hartley used her husband's name to craft a more glamorous stage name, Vivien Leigh.

    <a>Film and Onstage Debuts</a>

    Vivien Leigh made both her onstage and film debuts in 1935. She starred in the play The Bash, which, although wasn't particularly successful, allowed Leigh to make an impression on producer Sydney Carroll, who soon cast the actress in her first London play; and landed the lead role in the aptly titled movie Things are Looking Up (1935).

    Although Leigh was initially typecast as a fickle coquette, she began to explore more dynamic roles by doing Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic in London, England. There, she met and fell in love withLaurence Olivier, a respected actor who, like Leigh, already happened to be married. The two soon embarked on a highly collaborative and inspired acting relationship—not to mention a very public love affair.

    <a>'Gone with the Wind'</a>

    Around the same time, American director George Cukor was hunting for the perfect actress to play the lead role of Scarlett O'Hara in his film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. "The girl I select must be possessed of the devil and charged with electricity," Cukor insisted at the time. An impressive list of Hollywood's top actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, had long been vying for the part by the time Leigh, who was on a two-week vacation in California, took and passed the screen test.

    Casting a virtually unknown British theater actress in the role of a Southern belle struggling for survival during the American Civil War was risky, to say the least—especially considering that Gone with the Wind was already, even in pre-production, one of the most highly anticipated Hollywood pictures of all time. However, the decision paid off as the film smashed box office records, and garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and eight wins—including one for Leigh as best actress.

    Gone with the Wind remains one of the most iconic pictures in cinema history.

    Finally having secured divorces from their respective spouses, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married in 1940, cementing their status as a powerhouse couple in the world of show business. The pair continued to co-star in movies and plays, but tried to stay out of the limelight,

    often taking breaks of several years between films—this was partly due to the deteriorating state of Leigh's mental health, as increasingly severe bouts of manic depression strained her relationship with Olivier and made it difficult for her to perform.

    <a>Declining Health</a>

    Tragedy struck in 1944, when Leigh fell during a rehearsal for_Anthony and Cleopatra_ and suffered a miscarriage. Her health took a turn for the worse; she became increasingly unstable while simultaneously battling insomnia, bipolar disorder and a respiratory ailment that was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. Hoping for relief, Leigh underwent electroshock therapy, which was very rudimentary at the time and sometimes left her with burn marks on her temples. It wasn't long before she began to drink heavily.

    Her increasingly troubled personal life forced Leigh to take occasional breaks from work throughout the 1940s, but she continued to take on many high-profile roles, both on the stage and screen. None could match the critical or commercial success she had won for playing Scarlett O'Hara, however.

    <a>Continued Success</a>

    That changed in 1949, when Leigh won the part of Blanche Du Bois in a London production of Tennessee Williams's play, A Streetcar Named Desire. After a successful run that lasted nearly a year, Leigh was cast in the same demanding role in Elia Kazan's 1951 Hollywood film adaptation, in which she starred opposite Marlon Brando. Her portrayal of Blanche Du Bois, a character struggling to hide a shattered psyche behind a facade of gentility, may have drawn on Leigh's real-life struggles with mental illness, and perhaps even contributed to them. (The actress later said that the year she spent inside the tortured soul of Blanche Du Bois tipped her "into madness.")

    In the judgment of many critics, Leigh's acting in _Streetcar_surpassed even her star turn in Gone with the Wind; she won a second Best Actress Oscar, as well as a New York Film Critics Award and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, for the part.

    Soon after, Leigh made theater history by starring alongside Olivier in simultaneous London stage productions of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra—both of which were critical successes.

    <a>Final Years</a>

    Despite these triumphs, bipolar disorder continued to take a heavy toll on Vivien Leigh. After another miscarriage, she had a breakdown in 1953, forcing her to withdraw from the filming of _Elephant Walk_and earning her a reputation for being difficult to work with. Additionally, her relationship with Olivier became more and more tumultuous; in 1960, their troubled marriage ended in divorce.

    After Olivier remarried and started a new family, Leigh moved in with a younger actor named Jack Merivale. The change of pace seemed to do her good, as she re-emerged to take part in several successful performances during the 1960s. In 1963, she headlined in a musical adaptation of_ Tovarich_and earned her a first Tony Award. Two years later, she starred in the Oscar-winning film Ship of Fools.

    Just before she began rehearsing for a London production of A Delicate Balance in 1967, Leigh fell seriously ill. A month passed before she finally succumbed to her tuberculosis, on July 8, 1967, at the age of 53, in London, England. Marking a sad and premature end to a career that was both tumultuous and triumphant, the London theater district blacked out its lights for a full hour in Leigh's honor.

    In 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London purchased her personal archives, which includes her personal diaries and previously unseen photographs. The museum's director Martin Roth told UPI that the archive "not only represents Vivien Leigh's career, but is also a fascinating insight into the theater and social world that surrounded her." Selections from the archive will put on display in time for the centennial celebration of Leigh's birth.

      A lovely, petite, fragile stage-trained player whose delicate beauty first graced the screen in 1935, Leigh was born to a British military family stationed in India. Despite her heritage, she remains best-known for her two most successful screen roles as American Southern belles.

      After a childhood traveling Europe, an apprenticeship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a brief marriage, Leigh began her career in 1935 with several small stage and screen roles. After making a hit onstage in "The Masque of Virtue" (1935), she was signed by Alexander Korda and appeared as a pretty ingenue in such films as "Fire Over England" (1937), opposite Laurence Olivier, and "Storm in a Teacup" (also 1937), with Rex Harrison. Korda loaned her to MGM for "A Yank at Oxford" (1938), which did more for Robert Taylor than Leigh. That same year, she displayed her screen charisma and charm as a Cockney petty thief who is befriended by street performer Charles Laughton and romanced by songwriter Rex Harrison in the frothy "Sidewalks of London/Saint Martin's Lane". While making her mark in features, Leigh continued to polish her talents onstage, notably as Ophelia to Olivier's "Hamlet" in 1937.

      By this time, Leigh and Olivier were romantically involved. When he went to the US in late 1938 to make "Wuthering Heights", Leigh followed and won the much-coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" (1939). Her Scarlett was a headstrong, willful and colorful portrayal. Despite much flack about a relatively unknown Brit taking the role of the quintessential Southern belle, Leigh was triumphant, won an Oscar and became a bigger star than Olivier (whom she married in 1940).

      Leigh failed to immediately follow up on her tremendous promise. She starred onstage with Olivier in "Romeo and Juliet" (1940) and made two films. In the fine remake of "Waterloo Bridge" (1940), Leigh's beauty heightened her portrayal of a ballerina in love with an upper-class soldier (Robert Taylor). Through a series of plot machinations, she is reduced to prostitution and has a bittersweet reunion with Taylor, whom she thought was killed during the war. The role was the first of many in which her character suffered mental collapse--ironically mirroring her own bouts with mental illness. She again was a woman of questionable virtue in the biopic of an historical tart in "That Hamilton Woman" (1941, opposite Olivier). Her subsequent career was slowed to fits and starts by the tuberculosis which eventually killed her, and by her own emotional instability.

      For the rest of her career, Leigh alternated between the stage and screen, giving electrifying, emotional performances in both mediums. She appeared in six films after her initial bout with Hollywood, first in the British productions "Caesar and Cleopatra" (1946), opposite Claude Rains, and as "Anna Karenina" (1948). Her next huge hit was recreating her stage role as the fragile, emotionally unstable Blanche Du Bois in Elia Kazan's film of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951). Her performance as the outsider is enhanced by playing off her Method-trained co-stars, notably Marlon Brando's stunning Stanley, Kim Hunter's torn Stella and Karl Malden's gentle Mitch. Leigh earned a second Best Actress Oscar playing this damaged woman trailing the tattered threads of her sanity behind her, a role some felt was eerily close to Leigh's own personality at times. Her last films consisted of stellar performances as emotionally unstable women in less than stellar films: "The Deep Blue Sea" (1955), as a frustrated, suicidal wife; "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961), based on a Tennessee Williams' story, as an elegant, middle-aged actress who is ample bait for Warren Beatty's gigolo; and Stanley Kramer's all-star "Ship of Fools" (1966), as an embittered, flirtatious divorcee.

      Leigh was, perhaps, happier onstage. She and Olivier toured with the Old Vic company in the late 1940s and early 50s, in such plays as "The School for Scandal", "Anthony and Cleopatra", "Caesar and Cleopatra", "Richard III" and "Antigone." She was directed by Olivier in "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1945) and "The Sleeping Prince" (1954) and scored successes with "Duel of Angels" (1958) and "Look After Lulu" (1959), directed by Noel Coward. In 1963, she made her American musical stage debut in "Tovarich", winning a Tony Award. But health problems began to interfere with her ability to sustain a long run and she frequently missed performances. Her last stage appearance was in "Ivanov" in 1966.

      Leigh's private life was as stormy as any of her roles. After twenty tempestuous years, she and Olivier divorced in 1960, and her mental illness often transformed her intelligent and sweet nature, making professional and personal relationships problematic at times. By the time she died, a ravaged 53 years old, Vivien Leigh had become one of the broken butterflies she had so often played on stage and screen.