To legions of movie fans, Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) will best be remembered as the defiant and beautiful Scarlett O'Hara, heroine of the 1939 movie classic Gone With the Wind.
Leigh had only a brief career on the British stage and screen when she was plucked out of relative obscurity for the female lead in what would become one of the greatest movies ever made. Playing opposite the charismatic Clark Gable, Leigh became an instant celebrity after her role as Scarlett O'Hara, and remained so for the rest of her relatively short, yet sometimes turbulent life.
An International Upbringing
Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in India, in the cool mountain region of Darjeeling in 1913. Her stockbroker father, Ernest Richard, and her mother, Gertrude, spent half the year in England and half in India, which was then under British control. Enrolled in a convent boarding school outside of London at the age of five, Leigh first appeared on stage three years later in A Midsummer's Night's Dream. She recalled after that experience that she couldn't remember when she didn't want to be an actress. The stage would have to wait, however, as she finished her education. She attended a finishing school in Paris, studied languages in Italy, and attended a girls' seminary in Bavaria. When she was 18, her parents sent her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
The Early Career
In 1932, Leigh decided to get serious about her stage career. Married that year to a London barrister, Herbert Leigh Holman, she took his middle name, slightly changed the spelling of her first name. She gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, in 1933, and got a part in a British film called Things Are Looking Upin 1934. For Leigh, they were looking up. She landed small parts in several movies and then won her first stage role in 1935 for a production of The Green Sash. Although the play never got to London's famed theater district, her performance caught the attention of Sydney Carroll, a West End producer. She opened later that year in his The Mask of Virtue. The critics were smitten; some said as much by her astounding beauty as her acting ability. However, this role led to her "big break" and she was signed to a five-year film contract.
Although she worked steadily over the next several years, Leigh's career never brought her top status. From 1936 to 1939, Leigh appeared in a number of British stage and screen productions. She was the Queen in Richard II, an Oxford University student drama production directed by John Gielgud, who would become one of England's greatest stage performers. She played Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and Jessica Morton in Bats in the Belfry. In 1937, she was invited by the Danish government to play Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. She also appeared on the London stage in the title role of Serena Blandish.
Leigh was busy on the British silver screen as well. Cast again with Laurence Olivier, she played a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth in Fire Over England, in 1937, followed by Dark Journey and Storm in a Teacup. In 1938, she played opposite American screen idol Robert Taylor in A Yank at Oxford, a film that really only boosted Taylor's career. She also appeared with Charles Laughton that year in St. Martin's Lane, which was released in the United States in 1940 as The Sidewalks of London. This role was a bit of a change for Leigh, as she was cast to play a mean and unscrupulous heroine.
The Scarlett Legend Begins
Leigh came to the United States in 1938, where she visited Olivier on the set of Wuthering Heights. Sir Laurence Olivier (who was knighted in 1947) was regarded as one of England's greatest stage actors, noted especially for his Shakespearean roles. Leigh and Olivier had become attracted to each other during the filming of Fire Over England, and their well-publicized romance became a main topic of gossip, especially since they were both already married.
While Leigh and Olivier were spending time together, waiting for their divorces so they could marry, David O. Selznick was looking for a star. It was January 1939, and he was still without an actress to play the most publicized, sought-after role in movie history-Scarlett O'Hara, the extraordinary southern belle who is the main character in Gone With The Wind.
Even without Scarlett, the movie was already in production. Selznick had cast the other important roles: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, who proves to be more than a match for Scarlett; Leslie Howard as the quiet, gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett believes she loves; Olivia de Havilland as the gentle Melanie Hamilton, whom Wilkes marries; and Hattie McDaniel as the black servant who runs Tara with a blustery but devoted sense of duty. Even though many actresses, including Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball, tested for the part, Selznick still had not found the right person.
As noted in the "Pre-Production" section of the Gone With the Wind Homepage, Selznick's brother Myron, a talent agent, showed up on the set as they were filming the scene of the burning of Atlanta. He told his brother, "I want you to meet Scarlett O'Hara." According to the website, "The shadowy figure stepped forward, green eyes glinting in the half-light. Selznick always maintained that from the moment he first saw Vivien Leigh, the flames of Atlanta playing across her face, he had known she was Scarlett. She was later given a screen test, but it was only a formality. The part was hers-a storybook ending to a legendary search." As noted in the website, Leigh later commented, "There were dozens of girls testing and I did not seriously consider that I might actually play the part."
The filming of Gone With the Wind was officially completed about five months later. According to the "Post-Production" section of the Gone With the Wind Homepage, Leigh had worked almost non-stop for five months and was totally exhausted. However, she would soon reap the benefits of her dedication to the project.
Critics called Leigh's performance flawless and brilliant, and she went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. The film won several other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and over the years its fame has hardly diminished. From relative obscurity, the name of Vivien Leigh became known worldwide.
Life After Scarlett
In 1940, Leigh and Olivier starred in Romeo and Juliet in New York, but they did not get good reviews. The disappointment was forgotten a few months later when the couple finally wed in August. That December they sailed for wartorn England where Olivier served in the Royal Navy and Leigh worked for the equivalent of the American USO. The couple made the film That Hamilton Woman in 1941. According to the Times, Leigh had "hoped to join the Old Vic Company (a highly respected repertory company) on her return to England…. the director was of the opinion that her new celebrity would make it impossible for her to fit in."
Leigh continued to bask in the adoration of her fans for her memorable portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara, but she received praise for other work as well. In 1945, she played a 16-year-old Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra and then appeared in the London production of The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by her husband.
Soon after the play opened, Leigh's illness forced its closing for a time while she recuperated. According to her biography on a Gone With the Wind website, "Always frail, Leigh saved her limited stamina for her frequent stage appearances. Bouts of physical illness and mental breakdowns also cast a tragic shadow over the brightness of her many achievements.
Leigh once again found success when she portrayed Blanche Du Bois, the female lead in Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire. In the London stage production, she was directed by Olivier. In the film version, she was directed by Elia Kazan, and in 1951, Leigh won her second Academy Award for the role. Also in 1951, Leigh and Olivier appeared at the St. James in London, during the Festival of Britain. According to the Times, "when this theatre was about to be demolished six years later, she led a vigorous if unsuccessful movement to save it, interrupting a debate in the House of Lords in order to protest."
Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, but she continued to work in the theatre. In 1963, she made her Broadway musical debut in Tovarich. She made her last film, Ship of Fools, in 1965, and died on July 8, 1967, in London. According to the Times, "on the night of her death all theaters in the West End extinguished their exterior lights for an hour as a sign of mourning."
As noted by her biography on a Gone With the Wind website, Leigh will be best remembered for her portrayals of Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Du Bois. Her biography states, "Although she was British, she played the part of the Southern belle to perfection…. Those two sterling performances alone would qualify her for immortality, and she won Academy Awards for Best Actress in both of them."
Further Reading on Vivien Leigh
Bridges, Herb, 'Frankly, My Dear …': Gone With the Wind Memorabilia (Motion Pictures), Mercer University Press, 1995.
Bridges, Herb, and Terryl C. Boodman, Gone With the Wind: The Definitive Illustrated History of the Book, the Movie and the Legend, Fireside, 1989.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1990.
Walker, Alexander, Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, Grove Press, 1989.
Times (London), July 10, 1967.
Gone With the Wind Homepage, http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/3070 (April 23, 1998).
"Vivien Leigh, " Sherrie's Gone With the Wind Page, http://www.ladyrulz.tierranet.com/gwtw/vivien.html (April 23, 1998).
Vivien Leigh, (VHS tape) Americans Talk Issues, 1992.
Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond, (VHS tape) Theatre Communications Group, 1991.