Monday, November 1, 2010

Monthly Muse: Vivien Leigh

The first of November has come around quick as a flash it'll be Christmas before we know it but for now its time for another monthly muse. This months muse is Vivien Leigh.

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, Bengal Presidency, British India on 5th November 1913. Vivien's father was a British Officer in the Indian Calvary so Vivien spent her young life in India. Her first performance was t the age of 3 when she recited little Bo peep to her mothers amateur theatre group. At the age of 6 Vivien was sent to a boarding school in England. One of her friends at the convent school was the future actress Maureen O'Sullivan, to whom she expressed her desire to become "a great actress".

Vivien was removed from the school by her father who took her travelling round Europe. When she returned to England in 1931 she attended one of Maureen O'Sullican's performances in the West End and it was then she told her father she wanted to become an actress. Her father subsequently enrolled her in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).

1931 was also the year that Vivien met her first husband, Leigh Holman. He was a barrister and 13 years her senior. Despite his disapproval of "theatrical people", they were married on 20 December 1932 and Vivien stopped her studies at RADA.

In October 1933 she gave birth to her daughter Suzanne but Vivien found it hard to adjust to domestic life. A friend of her suggested she take on a small role in the film Things Are Looking Up, her film debut. She hired an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that the name "Vivian Holman" was not suitable for an actress so she changed her name to Vivien Leigh.

In 1935 Vivien was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue for which she received excellent reviews. Film director Alexander Korda attended the opening night and was so taken with Vivien that he signed her to a film contract. She continued with the play; but, when Korda moved it to a larger theatre, Leigh was found to be unable to project her voice adequately or to hold the attention of so large an audience, and the play closed soon after.

Laurence Olivier saw Vivien's performance in The Mask of Virtue and a friendship between them developed after he congratulated her on her performance. This turned into an affair when they were acting as lovers in Fire Over England (1937). During this time, Vivien read the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind and instructed her American agent to suggest her to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version. David Selznick had seen her performance in Fire Over England and A Yank at Oxford and thought although she was excellent she was too British for the role but he was forced to concede after seeing her screen test for the role.

Filming proved difficult for Leigh. Cukor was dismissed and replaced by Victor Fleming, with whom Leigh frequently quarrelled. She befriended Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard, and Olivia de Havilland; but she clashed with Leslie Howard, with whom she was required to play several emotional scenes. Leigh was sometimes required to work seven days a week, often late into the night, which added to her distress; and she missed Olivier, who was working in New York.

Gone with the Wind was an astounding success winning 10 Academy Awards among them was Best Actress award for Vivien who also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

After "Gone With The Wind", Vivien went on to make a number of successful films and stage performances. She played a number of Shakespeare's ladies including Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia, many of them played opposite Laurence Olivier

In 1940, she made two films, Waterloo Bridge and 21 Days, though neither approached the magnetism of Gone with the Wind. That same year saw Vivien marry Olivier after their spouses had both finally agreed to divorce and the next year they appeared together in That Hamilton Woman.

During the second world war Vivien and Lawrence toured Africa giving shows for the troops before she fell ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung, but after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured.

Vivien returned to acting in 1945 with Cesar and Cleopatra and it was during the filing of this movie that discovered she was pregnant. However Vivien suffered a bad fall which resulted in miscarriage. This caused Leigh to enter a deep depression in which she had violent outbursts that afterwards she would have no memory of.

In 1948 Vivien and Lawrence embarked on a 6 month tour of Australia and New Zealand. Olivier performed Richard III and also performed with Vivien in The School for Scandal and The Skin of Our Teeth. Vivien suffered bouts of insomnia during the tour and by the end of the six months both her and Lawrence were exhausted.

The success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Viviens's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy.

Vivien next sought the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and was cast after Williams and the play's producer Irene Mayer Selznick saw her in The School for Scandal and Antigone; Olivier was contracted to direct. The play was controversial as it contained a rape scene. The play opened in 1949 and critics panned Vivien as being too English to play the character of Blanche. However Vivien also got high praise for the role and as a result was given the part of Blanche in the film version. The film won glowing reviews for her; and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

In 1951, Leigh and Olivier performed two plays about Cleopatra, William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, alternating the play each night and winning good reviews. In January 1953, Leigh travelled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown; and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1953, Leigh recovered sufficiently to play The Sleeping Prince with Olivier; and, in 1955, they performed a season at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus.

Leigh took the lead role in the Noël Coward play South Sea Bubble, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months.

In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Leigh began a relationship with the actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh's medical condition and assured Olivier he would care for her. In 1959, she achieved a success with the Noël Coward comedy Look After Lulu. In 1960, she and Olivier divorced; and Olivier married actress Joan Plowright.

In May 1967, she was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance when she suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis. Following several weeks of rest, she seemed to recover. On the night of 7 July 1967, Merivale left her as usual, to perform in a play, and returned home around midnight to find her asleep. About thirty minutes later, he returned to the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had been attempting to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, collapsed

Vivien Leigh was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of her day however she felt that her beauty sometimes hampered her as people didn't always take her seriously as an actress. Although she suffered from a bipolar disorder and manic depression when it came to her work she was a consummate professional and her legacy lives on with her fantastic performances in movies like Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

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