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Vivien Leigh

Best known for her iconic performances as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Vivien Leigh

Filmography

1935      

The Village Squire

Look Up and Laugh

Things Are Looking Up

Gentlemen’s Agreement

 

1937      

Fire Over England

Dark Journey

Storm in a Teacup

 

1938      

A Yank at Oxford

Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin’s Lane

 

1939      

Gone with the Wind

 

1940      

21 Days

Waterloo Bridge

 

1941      

That Hamilton Woman

 

1945      

Caesar and Cleopatra

 

1948      

Anna Karenina

 

1951      

A Streetcar Named Desire

 

1955      

The Deep Blue Sea

 

1961      

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

 

1965      

Ship of Fools

Awards

Vivien Leigh was nominated for and won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, for her iconic performances as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy – and a much better training, I think. It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. ~ Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in British India on the campus of St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling. She was the only child of Ernest Richard Hartley, an English broker, and his wife, Gertrude Mary Frances (née Yackjee; she also used her mother’s maiden name of Robinson).

In 1917, Ernest Hartley was transferred to Bangalore as an officer in the Indian Cavalry, while Gertrude and Vivian stayed in Ootacamund. At the age of three, young Vivian made her first stage appearance for her mother’s amateur theatre group, reciting “Little Bo Peep”. Gertrude Hartley tried to instill an appreciation of literature in her daughter and introduced her to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, as well as stories of Greek mythology and Indian folklore. At the age of six, Vivian was sent by her mother to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (now Woldingham School) then situated in Roehampton, southwest London, from Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. One of her friends there was future actress Maureen O’Sullivan, two years her senior, to whom Vivian expressed her desire to become “a great actress”. She was removed from the school by her father, and traveling with her parents for four years, she attended schools in Europe, notably in Dinard, Biarritz, San Remo and Paris, becoming fluent in both French and Italian. The family returned to Britain in 1931. She attended A Connecticut Yankee, one of O’Sullivan’s films playing in London’s West End, and told her parents of her ambitions to become an actress. Shortly after, her father enrolled Vivian at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.

Vivian met Herbert Leigh Holman, known as Leigh Holman, a barrister 13 years her senior, in 1931. Despite his disapproval of “theatrical people”, they married on December 20, 1932 and she terminated her studies at RADA, her attendance and interest in acting having already waned after meeting Holman. On October 12, 1933 in London, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne.

Leigh’s friends suggested she take a small role as a schoolgirl in the film Things Are Looking Up, which was her film debut, albeit uncredited as an extra. She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that “Vivian Holman” was not a suitable name for an actress. After rejecting his many suggestions, she took “Vivian Leigh” as her professional name. Gliddon recommended her to Alexander Korda as a possible film actress, but Korda rejected her as lacking potential. She was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue, directed by Sidney Carroll in 1935, and received excellent reviews, followed by interviews and newspaper articles. In the playbill, Carroll had revised the spelling of her first name to “Vivien”.

 

Leigh, Vivien Fire Over England

Laurence Olivier saw Leigh in The Mask of Virtue, and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. Olivier and Leigh began an affair while acting as lovers in Fire Over England (1937), but Olivier was still married to actress Jill Esmond. During this period, Leigh read the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind and instructed her American agent to recommend her to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version.

Despite her relative inexperience, Leigh was chosen to play Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production staged at Elsinore, Denmark. Olivier later recalled an incident when her mood rapidly changed as she was preparing to go onstage. Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap, and by the following day she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event. It was the first time Olivier witnessed such behavior from her. They began living together, as their respective spouses had each refused to grant either of them a divorce. Under the moral standards then enforced by the film industry, their relationship had to be kept from public view.

Leigh appeared with Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford (1938), which was the first of her films to receive attention in the United States. During production, she developed a reputation for being difficult and unreasonable, partly because she disliked her secondary role but mainly because her petulant antics seemed to be paying dividends. After dealing with the threat of a lawsuit brought over a frivolous incident, Korda, however, instructed her agent to warn her that her option would not be renewed if her behavior did not improve. Her next role was in Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin’s Lane (1938), with Charles Laughton.

Olivier had been attempting to broaden his film career. He was not well known in the United States despite his success in Britain, and earlier attempts to introduce him to American audiences had failed. Offered the role of Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of