Vivian Hartley was born in 1913 in India where she was raised by her parents for the first six years of her life. Her mother eventually sent her to a girls convent school in England where she met friend and fellow actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Later on as she traveled with her parents she attended various schools in Europe and became fluent in French and Italian.
Vivian married at the young age of 18 to barrister Leigh Holman, a man many years older than she. By the age of 19 she had given birth to her only child, a daughter.
While pursuing her passion for acting in the theater, she met fellow actor Laurence Olivier with whom she began an affair. Although they were both married to others and had young children, they fell in love and eventually obtained divorces which enabled them to marry. They remained married for over twenty years and were linked together forever in the public mind since they appeared in numerous films and plays together.
Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder for most of her adult life, which greatly affected both her career and personal life, occasionally undergoing shock treatments to manage the illness. She also suffered through a couple of miscarriages and contracted a recurring case of tuberculosis. It was the tuberculosis that eventually killed her at the young age of 53.
Vivien Leigh always knew she wanted to be an actress, even telling friend and classmate Maureen O’Sullivan of her intent to become “a great actress”. This desire may have been fostered in her by her mother who introduced her to classic literature at a young age and who took young Vivian to her first play. After marriage and the birth of her daughter, she took the stage name Vivien Leigh and began to appear in small roles in the London theater. This is where she eventually met co-star and lover Olivier. She also began appearing in British films.
Both Olivier and Leigh were making names for themselves in the theater and British film, but it was Olivier’s role in Wuthering Heights and Leigh’s interest in playing Scarlett of Gone With the Wind that brought them to the attention of American audiences. Against all odds Leigh landed the very coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara winning her first of two Oscars.
Vivien Leigh along with Laurence Olivier continued to hone their craft in both British and American films as well as the theater balancing their busy professional life with a personal life fraught with mental illness, unfaithfulness, financial failures and other challenges. Through it all neither one gave any hint of their personal trauma.
Leigh managed to win a second Oscar for her role of Blanche DuBois, another Southern belle with issues, in A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh originally played the role on the West End theater before it was brought to film, She has said that it was her time spent as the broken Blanche which “tipped me over into madness”. Despite this Leigh continued to make appearances in both film and the theater up to her death. Thanks to her talent she is an acting icon and upon news of her death, the lights of every theater in London were extinguished for an hour in her honor. And although she appeared in less than twenty films, both British and American, she left an indelible mark and is one of a handful of actresses to win the Oscar each time she was nominated.
Laurence Olivier -Not only did Olivier and Leigh appear in several plays together, but they also co-starred in three films, Fire Over England, 21 Days Together, That Hamilton Woman.
Robert Taylor -Both Taylor and Vivien Leigh were acclaimed for their looks. Sometimes this overshadowed their individual talents. Taylor and Leigh starred in two films together, A Yank at Oxford and the melodrama Waterloo Bridge, which was a favorite film of both.
Gone With the Wind (1939) -This is only one of the most famous and highest grossing films of all time. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, it tells the story of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction era as seen through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh won her first Oscar for this film.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) -Leigh co-starred with Marlon Brando in another Southern tale of a dysfunctional female who becomes involved in a destructive relationship with her brother-in-law when she goes to live with her sister. Leigh’s performance in this film won her a second Oscar.
MY FAVORITE FILMS
Storm in a Teacup (1937) -A rarely seen romantic comedy set in Scotland which also stars Rex Harrison (of My Fair Lady fame).
Gone With the Wind (1939) -Listen, this film is a famous classic for a reason and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this film. Besides who wouldn’t watch Clark Gable play Rhett Butler over and over again?
Waterloo Bridge (1940) -This is a remake of an earlier film about a doomed love affair between a soldier and a ballerina. It was both Robert Taylor’s and Vivien Leigh’s favorite film and is tragically beautiful.
“I’m not a film star; I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity.”
“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.”
“All day long you’re really leading up to the evening’s performance. To time everything correctly, you have to take care of yourself – which is a very difficult thing to do, because it’s highly emotional.”
“Some critics saw fit to say that I was a great actress. I thought that was a foolish, wicked thing to say because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn’t able to carry.”