Vivien Leigh, the belle who conquered the theater

He starred in “Gone with the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for which he won Oscars, but had to deal with severe manic depressive disorder for much of his career. | We celebrate the centenary of the perfect “southern beauty” that Laurence Olivier fell in love with.


He had that I don’t know how aristocratic one of the actors who carry Shakespeare in their blood, but his most memorable characters are not Ophelia or Titania, but the surviving Scarlet O’Hara and the fragile Blanche DuBois. Vivien Leigh was born in India on November 5, 1913, under the name Vivian Mary Hartley. From a very young age she showed a great interest in the theater, and her parents, who had provided her with an exquisite education, encouraged her to enroll in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a few small roles, he impressed critics with The mask of virtueby Henriette Duqesnoy. Her agent, John Gliddon, suggested that she start introducing herself under a more artistic name: Vivien Leigh, a surname she took from her first husband, Leigh Holman.

Gliddon recommended her to director Alexander Korda. With him he worked on the filming of England on fire, in which Leigh began an affair with her (also married) co-star, Laurence Olivier, a West End eminence for his Shakespearean performances.. The chemistry between the two was so evident that, when Leigh appeared before Korda announcing that they were in love and were getting married, he replied: “Don’t be silly. Everyone has known. I have known for weeks and weeks.” Meanwhile, Leigh continued to hone her talent on the stage, again meeting Olivier on Hamlet, playing Ophelia. By then they were living together, resigned to the denial of divorce they received from their respective spouses. In one of the representations of Hamlet Olivier first witnessed one of Leigh’s ‘attacks’. For no apparent reason, the actress began to yell at him, furious, before going on stage. His strange behavior was not reflected in his performance, but it was an early symptom of bipolar disorder that would manifest itself years later.

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Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in a performance of Hamlet, in 1937

Soon after, the couple traveled to Hollywood. He, to make himself known in the United States, in the adaptation of Wuthering Heights by William Wyler. She, for the role of her life: Escarlata O´Hara in gone With the Wind. Leigh embroidered the capricious southern beauty caught in the middle of the Civil War, and knew how to reconcile the mischief demanded by the youth of her character with a superhuman strength, capable of raising her family and her ranch, Tara, the true love of her life . The shooting was tough: producer David O. Selznick intervened constantly, hindering the work of the director, George Cukor, who was eventually replaced by Victor Fleming, something that however did not prevent him from continuing to advise Leigh and his partner Olivia de Havilland until the end of filming. The result was the first color film to win an Oscar, and one of the most awarded in history, with eight statuettes, including Vivien Leigh for Best Actress. Hollywood celebrities already considered her a star, but she always rejected that qualification. “To be just a movie star is to lead a false life, based on false values ​​and advertising”, Held.

In 1940, both Leigh and Olivier obtained a divorce, and that same year they married. The wedding was followed by a period of calm. Leigh starred in Waterloo bridge, Lady Hamilton (with her husband), Caesar and Cleopatra Y Ana Karenina. At the same time he did not neglect his theatrical career, and following her role in Blanche DuBois’s West End in A Streetcar Named Desireby Tennessee Williams, he repeated in Elia Kazan’s softened film adaptation. Blanche got her her second Oscar, but it also drove her crazy, according to his own testimony. Despite critical acclaim, she felt very insecure about her own talent. This led her to suffer several nervous breakdowns that culminated in her replacement in The path of the elephants and with the end of their marriage. In 1960 she and Olivier got divorced. Leigh’s presence both in film and on stage did not diminish, and she even won a Tony Award for the musical. Tovarich. Freed from the constant comparison between her work and Olivier’s, Leigh, however, once commented that she would have preferred a short life with her ‘Larry’ than a long one without him. The depressions were compounded by an outbreak of tuberculosis that had afflicted her for a couple of decades. On the night of July 7, 1967, the great lady of the theater died at her home in London at the age of 53.

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Vivien Leigh with Marlon Brando, on a break from filming A Streetcar Named Desire

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Vivien Leigh, the belle who conquered the theater

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