As long as cinema endures, movie buffs will continue to be fascinated by Vivien Leigh. The British actress who was born in Darjeeling, India 100 years ago today, was not only regarded as the most spellbinding beauty of her era but one of its most supremely talented and popular performers. Leigh, who considered herself primarily a stage actress, won lasting fame and her first Academy Award as the ultimate steel magnolia Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 epic Gone With The Wind. She’d win a second Oscar as faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a performance that’s rightly remembered as one of cinema’s finest and reportedly stunned even the gay playwright.
Offscreen, Leigh’s fabled marriage to Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of his day, added to her luster (they were the Brangelina of their era, if you will), while a valiant battle waged against illness (bipolar disorder and tuberculosis) limited her creative output and prematurely claimed her life in 1967 at age 53.
Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, an insightful and lavishly-illustrated portrait of the star, and editor of VivandLarry.com, a website devoted to the couple and classic Hollywood, chats with Queerty about Leigh’s lasting appeal.
While researching your book, what did you learn about Vivien that most surprised you?
I didn’t go into this expecting to uncover any big revelations. Her personality had been pretty well laid out in previous books and she still emerged the generous, kind, determined and sometimes unpredictable woman that many have made her out to be. What emerged from my research were little details that I felt helped to flesh out certain situations and periods in her life, particularly pertaining to her relationship with Laurence Olivier and the bipolar disorder that affected both her personal life and career.
I know a lot of gay men who find inspiration in Scarlett O’Hara, because she refused to conform to society’s expectations. Why do you think Vivien’s performance in Gone With The Wind remains so vivid and timeless?
Blanche DuBois and Karen Stone, the characters Vivien played in film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ play Streetcar and novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, are thought by some to be stand-ins for the author as they were both sexually drawn to destructive people. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve heard this, as well. Tennessee Williams said that he felt he and Vivien had a lot in common, which is why he was so pleased with her Blanche DuBois and why she was his first choice for Karen Stone. It’s difficult to watch these two performances today and not see the parallels between the characters and Vivien. She was kind of a Method actress without ever admitting it!
During a time when homosexuality was criminal, many of Vivien’s closest friends were artistic gay men, such as George Cukor, John Gielgud and Robert Helpmann. What influence did these men have on her career and life?
Well, Cukor was the first director on Gone With the Wind, and Vivien received secret coaching from him on the weekends. Her performance was shaped by his direction, even if it was finally executed by Victor Fleming. Bobby Helpmann directed her in several plays in the 1960s, and John Gielgud also directed a few of her performances on stage. None of them had the kind of influence over her career that Laurence Olivier did, but what these particular men provided above all was treasured friendship. They became loyal, lifelong companions to Vivien and supported her through some difficult times in her life.
It’s now 100 years since her birth, she’s been dead for 46 years and made so few films. Why does she continue to hold such fascination for movie fans?
I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that Gone With the Wind is still such an accessible and much-loved film, so a lot of younger fans discover her that way. Can you think of many actresses of her generation who could boast a film of that scope and calibre? I can’t, with the possible exception of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz. I also think that Leigh’s life story is inspirational to many people. She suffered many hardships during her adult life, including bipolar disorder at a time when treatment was primitive compared to what we have today, and yet she didn’t let it beat her down. I’ve gotten emails via vivandlarry.com from people saying that learning about Vivien’s own struggles helped them to come to terms with their own. To me that’s very admirable. Her films continue to bring countless people joy, and she was also relatable on a more personal level.